There are few more big picture efforts underway in the supply chain today than digitization.

The concept is quite simple. Take all the data from the various supply chain silos, convert everything to an electronic state and put it all in a central location. Then, fundamentally change everything you do to take advantage of the incredible speed and accuracy.

Getting to that point is not nearly so simple. And with good reason.  Not only does digitization impact all aspects of the supply chain, it also requires people to think and work differently. Nothing simple about that.

Fortunately, there are some pioneers out there who have the scars to show what it takes to make digitization a reality. Jack Allen of Cisco is one of those. Better yet, he will deliver the keynote – Digitization of the Supply Chain: The Future is Here…The Future is Now – on the second day of next week’s NextGen Supply Chain Conference. It is scheduled for April 16-17 at the Chicago Athletic Association. You can register here.

Digitization

“Digitizing is a whole lot like launching a new product, but so much more complicated,” says Allen, who is senior director of global logistics of Cisco supply chain operations. “You have to expect false starts. Be ready to try lots of things. It can be really messy.”

That said, in some ways the deck is stacked against digitization success. As Allen explains, most supply chain professionals want to verify everything. They are very bottom-line oriented and want to know the outcome every day. The process of moving to digitization doesn’t necessarily work that way. So, it can be difficult for many to get their heads around it all.

“The fact is that everyone does things differently in the supply chain. Even the standards are not always so standardized,” says Allen. Which goes to the heart of the digitization challenge – people with the right attitude toward innovation. “Because digitization is pure innovation for any supply chain,” he adds.

Allen goes on to explain that this giant project is a great opportunity to develop next generation leaders. They have to think differently than legacy people used to working in a certain mode and manner. New skills have to be developed, and gaps filled. A new culture has to be created that is as big and broad as digitization itself.

“It’s just as important to build the people infrastructure as it is to build the technical infrastructure,” says. Allen. You can’t have one without the other.

He explains that Cisco has provided great support for these efforts. “We started an innovation center in Houston and have been given great leeway by top management,” says Allen. “But there’s only so much give here and those of us on the project have to give back.

On a very regular basis we have to update key people on our results and progress. They need proof of concept to keep the faith,” he adds.

In the end, says Allen, digitization of the supply chain is a seismic shift that is tough for many to imagine. But it doesn’t take much to realize that digitization is also inevitable. 

Gary Forger is the special projects editor for Supply Chain Management Review. He can be reached at grforger@gmail.com.