Nearly five years ago I wrote a blog about Big Data and how it could be relevant for sourcing and supply chain professionals. Needless to say, a LOT has happened since then. In a Gartner survey performed in October 2016, 48% of companies indicated that they have a Big Data initiative currently underway, with another 25% who stated they had plans on the horizon. So it is no longer a question of whether or not companies are using Big Data…that is a given. Now the question is how companies are using it and how they are incorporating Robotic Process Automation (RPA) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) into the equation.
The information being collected from Big Data initiatives is powerful and can provide predictive analytics and insightful information. For example, a shipping company being able to change delivery routes based on current traffic patterns increases productivity (not to mention customer frustration). A large company using it to detect anomalies in behavior by third party vendors and mitigate the risk associated with that information could protect them from millions in cyber security damages.
I recently finished two-and-a-half days at Singularity University’s Global Summit (not to be confused with our own SIG Global Summit!). It was an incredible, mind-blowing, education-packed few days. Singularity packs their event with high-energy speakers who speak passionately on their area of expertise. I heard presentations on virtual reality, augmented reality, healthcare, leadership, socially responsible business, entrepreneurship, the future of work and so much more. The presentations covered a wide variety of topics, but they all had one thing in common…they all made you think about the possibilities…they all challenged the status quo…and they all embraced the concept that disruptive technologies are changing our world exponentially.
No session covered this better than keynote David Roberts whose core message was that slight variations in key assumptions could have a HUGE impact on our future. In his impassioned, funny and moving presentation Roberts connected the dots on some of the most exponential technologies our world has seen by asking everyone to consider some “what ifs” in life. His enthusiastic presentation and challenging questions inspired me to dig further.
What if…your phone was smarter than you? In 2013, Gartner predicted that by 2017 smart phones would, in fact be smarter than humans. Are they? Artificial intelligence (AI) has certainly progressed to such a point that you might argue that they are. In an article and related research, Gartner presented four phases of cognizant computing:
At Singularity University’s Global Summit, keynote speaker David Roberts posed the question, “What if machines made more money than people?” Sounds crazy…but is it? With Blockchain, could that be the way of the future?
I confess that when he asked the question, I still didn’t feel comfortable enough with the concept of blockchain to have an informed opinion on the viability of it. So I did what 77% of people do when seeking information on the Web…I Googled it…and I kept Googling it until I found articles that dissected the concept well enough that it made sense. If you are equally confused by the term, hopefully this analysis will benefit you as well…because rest assured, you WILL need to understand it—especially if you work in sourcing, outsourcing or supply chain as the potential is unlimited.
Fundamentally, blockchain allows consumers to transact directly with one another without the need for an intermediary, like a bank. If you use Paypal and select “eCheck” as your payment method to reimburse a friend for say a concert ticket, it appears to go directly from you to them. In actuality it first has to clear your bank, which can take 3-5 business days, or up to 8 days if another country is involved. Blockchain removes the middleman by using digital currency (aka cryptocurrency) which can be spent with companies or people who are set up to accept it as a form of payment. The digital currency can be converted to cold, hard cash, but with thousands of companies now taking digital payments it is not really the norm.
I used to have many phone numbers memorized. It was second nature to pick up the phone and dial someone’s number. Now the term “dial” even seems a little obsolete when it comes to phones. How many millennials have even seen a rotary phone with an actual dial? But it has made me start to wonder…is the ubiquitous use of smart devices making us actually think less?
I suppose that in some ways it was inevitable. Calculators made it possible for people to quickly arrive at answers to problems that previously took a lot of time and many steps to complete. And in much the same way, every technology that connects to another technology to give us immediate access to information we weren’t easily able to get otherwise, eliminates our need to use our brain to find it. Now I'm not saying this is a bad thing…but I do think it makes us a little lazier.
Case in point…one of my daughters has Type 1 diabetes. When she was diagnosed, we agonized over every meal; figuring out what she was planning to eat, counting the carbs in the meal, factoring out the fiber and then calculating the amount of insulin she’d need based on her current carb-to-insulin ratio to keep her blood sugar levels in check. In the beginning, I incessantly worried that we would give her too much insulin and send her in to diabetic shock or worse. Over time, we learned how to do it and got pretty good at calculating math in our heads…especially helpful for my then-11-year-old daughter. But as soon as she went on an insulin pump, we stopped having to actually do the math, and now if she takes a “pump break” I find myself having to really think…and it makes me nervous.
Disruption. Until recently that word meant something negative. It was a nuisance…a disturbance…an interruption…it meant trouble. In fact, if you look at synonyms for disruption, every one of them paints it negatively. But lately when you hear the word “disruption,” it generally means change—and even positive change. Disruptive technologies are in essence solutions that are changing the future of work. They are challenging the status quo.
I was recently reading an article about Amazon potentially purchasing Slack. (Ironically one of my colleagues sent it over in a “Slack” which we use for internal communications at SIG.) As my colleagues and I reminisced about our first use of Amazon, it made me realize what a pioneer they were in disruptive technologies. The term may not have been widely known, but they certainly paved the way for it to be put into ubiquitous use.
I can’t really remember when or how Amazon disrupted my life…but it did. Somewhere along the way I went from being skeptical about purchasing things online to almost exclusively shopping with Amazon—and Prime no less because I want the immediacy of it. Don’t get me wrong—there are certain items I will never purchase on the Internet, but if I am going to shop online, I ALWAYS check Amazon first.
For the past 60+ years, the standard joke about Artificial Intelligence (AI) has been that it is “the future.” In 1950, Alan Turing questioned whether machines could think like humans…and less than ten years later, Marvin Minsky founded the AI lab at MIT. For decades, people tinkered, pondered and philosophized about robotics. Factories installed automation to remove workers from redundant tasks…but advancements in office settings didn’t progress at the same level. People hypothesized about flying cars, but few could imagine cognitive computing. I think it’s finally safe to say that the future is now. AI and Robotic Process Automation (RPA) are no longer conceptual ideas…they are business strategies that will continue to impact our lives in radical ways.
A recent Forrester study predicts that by 2021, 6% of U.S. jobs will be replaced by robots. While it may not sound like a lot in the grand scheme of things, consider that it represents growth from 250 million in 2016 to 2.9 billion in 2021. Sure…we’ve all dealt with AI and technological advancements already: call centers that put us through a series of (irritating) steps before you can finally talk to a human; travel aggregators that find the best deal across all airlines…ads that stalk you online after one quick search for a new printer…but until recently, it was hard to see how it would really affect the world of sourcing and procurement.
I’ll admit it. I was pulling for the Falcons. Even though I lived in Atlanta for six years, I didn’t really have a stake in the game—I was never a big fan. It’s not that I’m not into sports—I was a huge Braves fan when I lived in Atlanta (when they went from worst to first) and I can tell you the names of every Golden State Warrior who was traded for Kevin Durant. Seriously. But this Super Bowl for me was a little like the election—I was rooting against one team more than pulling for another.
Now picture this…we’re watching the game at a friend’s house. We wisely recorded it so we could enjoy the good commercials and skip through the bad. It’s the 3rd quarter and the Patriots finally score a touchdown. Knowing that the Pats would still need two touchdowns, two 2-point conversions and a field goal in order to TIE the game, the odds were against them. Seemingly impossible. Now fast forward to the final two minutes. Under Tom Brady’s leadership, they’ve tightened the score to 28:20 and are driving the ball. And then it stops. What?! The DVR had STOPPED RECORDING THE GAME. That’s right. One of the best 4th quarters in Super Bowl history and the only one to ever go into overtime and we missed it.
To say I was shocked by the outcome would be an understatement. Atlanta had controlled most of the game. But as I reflect on the day, I can’t help but think of the valuable lessons it reinforced:
Much has been written recently about robotics. If you Google it, the most common word you will see in articles about robotics is “hype.” In fairness, it’s generally in the form of a question…it it hype? Is it more than just hype? Is the promise of artificial intelligence finally here? For the past two years Robotic Process Automation (RPA) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) have become more prominent conversations at SIG Summits…and the word on the street is that these are no longer just futuristic concepts. They are real. Much of what is out there centers on the idea that automation is just a passing IT fad. But I’m not buying it. I’ve looked behind the curtain and I’m drinking the Kool-Aid. (Nothing like mixing a few metaphors.)
Concerns abound that automation will take away jobs, and in an era where we are still feeling the effects of the 2008 recession the threat of job loss is daunting…haunting even. But is that is the most important aspect of robotics? Yes, it could take jobs away but robotics are most easily applied to positions that are repetitive and process-oriented, so the premise is that the people in those jobs can then be redeployed to more strategic roles. Gartner uses the term “automation arbitrage” to describe RPA and in effect, that is just what it is. But there are so many more possibilities with it.
And like that, another one is behind us. For months we plan every little detail to make our Summit a memorable event for our delegates. We coach speakers, edit session presentations, order matching linens, create signage and think through every thing that can go wrong to make sure that it doesn’t. And then it’s over. Just like that. The delegates have gone home, the sessions have been evaluated and everything has been shipped. But the memories of the event linger and one thing has become more and more clear with each passing event…the sourcing function is no longer back-office. It has not just gone from tactical to strategic, but is also leading companies in tackling some of the biggest issues facing our members today. Sourcing has gone mainstream. These observations from the most recent SIG Global Executive Summit highlight these points.
Data is the word of the day. And I don’t just mean “Big Data” although that is certainly a “big” part of it. Data is the key to better understanding customers. It is the way we can predict future supply needs. And yes—using “Big Data” we can teach computers to replace even complex procurement functions with little to no errors. But now Procurement groups are also hiring Data Scientists to turn that data into tangible outcomes. The baseline for smart systems is getting the data right, so pay attention…you will see the Data Scientist trend on the rise.
It’s been awhile since I’ve written a blog…I’ve been remiss. But in my defense, it has been a BUSY year. We officially opened SIG University with hundreds of students now matriculating through it…acquired Outsource, the leading digital content thought leader based in the UK…launched a division of SIG in EMEA…and absorbed the LatAm Alliance (formerly called Nearshore Executive Alliance) as a SIG Working Council…and that is all since January! Not to mention launching a new website, starting two Working Groups, hosting our first CPO Meet & Eat, conducting several events with our European team, planning our first-ever awards event, holding dozens of one-day forums all over North America and beyond and preparing for our second Global Summit of the year! My head is spinning…it’s been quite a year. But it’s the crazy ride we call the Summit that has me thinking it’s time to write another blog.
The Summit is a time that we at SIG always look forward to with (to be honest) mixed feelings. The event itself gives us a high like no other. It is the time when we get to see all of our members face-to-face. We hear the latest innovations and ideas from world class thought leaders. We meet new SIG members…and we reconnect with our work colleagues whom we know better by voice than face. But preparing for it is a LOT of work. I’m not sure I emphasized that enough. It is A LOT of work. There are literally thousands of little details that go into making this the world-class event you have all come to expect. From the speakers to the signage…from the cups to the cocktail napkins…from the app to the entertainment…the list is LONG. We put the effort into making it a flawless event so you can come prepared to just absorb, learn, network and enjoy. But if you want a few more tips for making the week the best it can possibly be, consider these three things: