Preparing the Supply Chain Workforce for Human + Machine Era

Intelligent machines can’t do it alone—they need to be paired with humans to deliver transformational results.

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Big changes are coming to the supply chain, and by extension, its workforce.

As intelligent machines become increasingly prevalent, companies are finding they can do more with their supply chains than they ever dreamed possible. Technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), digital twins, machine learning, the Internet of Things (IoT) and the cloud are providing unprecedented insight and speed, fundamentally changing the way companies design, source, plan, manufacture, supply, service and reclaim or recycle goods.

But, these intelligent machines can’t do it alone—they need to be paired with humans to deliver transformational results. And, that’s arguably the biggest challenge for supply chain executives as they create an increasingly digital and intelligent supply chain that relies on close collaboration between humans and machines.

The accelerating use of intelligent technologies will have a profound impact on the supply chain workforce. New skills and roles certainly will be required. For example, in one Accenture study, 43% of executives said that over 60% of their workforce will require substantial skilling for new roles over the next three years. But, many existing supply chain roles also will change considerably, evolving from a focus on executing to one of monitoring, interpreting and guiding the work of intelligent machines.

Take planning, for instance. Today, the vast majority of planning decisions are made manually by humans. In the future, AI algorithms will be making 90% of the decisions by themselves, and humans involved in the overall planning orchestration and reacting to alerts or anything the machine can’t decide. Codified with the right intelligence, AI can integrate the critical data that planners lack today and, therefore, predict with far better accuracy and identify trends and patterns that humans can't. This will enable planners to gain more insights on what’s happening both upstream and downstream in the supply chain, as well as across the enterprise, and react more quickly and accurately.

How do companies prepare for this future that’s rapidly headed their way? The answer is, they need to put their people first—before technology. Doing so is vital to getting people comfortable with using intelligent machines and building trust in them, which, in turn, is critical to widespread technology adoption and impact.

Putting people first requires ensuring any digital transformation program starts with a formal talent strategy, including a disciplined approach to skilling, job matching and a focus on long-term, purpose-driven shareholder value. More specifically, leading companies are addressing this critical challenge in three key ways.

First, they’re using AI and analytics to help build new skills at scale. For example, new AI tools enable these companies to match “proximate” or similar skills from old roles to new roles, and subsequently, chart a pathway to effective, responsible skilling across the supply chain. When paired with a larger talent transformation program, such tools can help companies define future-focused work and skills that drive optimal human value with machine augmentation; develop and align role-based learning, taking into account different levels of skills and willingness to learn; and, ultimately, create on-demand personalized learning experiences and career paths to accelerate the speed and scale of effective training.

Second, they’re fostering the traditional skills that are still valuable to the organization. With the acceleration of digital in the supply chain, there’s still a big need for people with the hands-on experience and expertise that keep things running—doing things that haven’t been or can’t be fully automated. Even if parts of their jobs do get automated, there’s still a lot of direct labor needed across the supply chain to, for example, translate what an algorithm says into what it actually means on the warehouse or shop floor. These people are incredibly critical, and yet, becoming scarce, as many are retiring and the pipeline of younger talent to fill those roles slows to a trickle. The urgency to retain and continue to benefit from their expertise, for example, via the creation of (part-time) expert roles, is high.

Finally, they’re involving people in initiatives from the outset. Leading companies foster engagement and ownership at the beginning, especially among both leaders and employees who are the most worried, skeptical or negative about the change. These companies make such employees part of the team that’s providing input into the change plan for the implementation of the new tools and the design of the new ways of working. Their input and challenging questions will only strengthen the final solution, and will help raise the credibility of the solution to their peers. For many people, this is incredibly motivating, while the company gets valuable input from key employees, but in their own way.

While technology innovations have been transforming industries and companies for decades, we’re reaching a true inflection point with the latest wave of intelligent machines that will fundamentally reshape what kind of supply chain work gets done, how and by whom. Figuring out how best to capitalize on these digital technologies—creating the ideal collaboration between humans and machines to get the best out of each—is quickly becoming the competitive imperative. As leading companies know, recognizing the primacy of the human element, and how a move to intelligent technologies affects their supply chain workforce, is a critical part of that equation.

This is especially true considering the fact that many supply chain roles eventually could be automated to some extent, and in addition, there are new roles on the horizon that do not exist yet. That’s why companies need to get a head start now on determining which roles (and, thus, people) will be needed so they can begin creating a responsible path forward for each. In doing so, both the company and its people stand to benefit as the human + machine era unfolds.