Why humans will always be an enduring element of the supply chain

Image credit: Vaclav Volrab/Dreamstime

Ancient monuments like Stonehenge illustrate how even the most powerful artificial intelligence will always rely on human knowledge.

What may be the world’s most famous prehistoric monument has left its impact on history way beyond stones, paying testament to the power of the human supply chain. Stonehenge, when viewed in this context, is proof that even as we move towards fully autonomous, AI-driven supply chains, humans will always play an integral role.

Energy crises, global labour shortages and transport bottlenecks have all sharpened the focus on how automation can accelerate processes and streamline operations. However, lessons of the past clearly show that humans remain a vital component of supply chains today.

The planning involved in the construction of Stonehenge was momentous, and it was through a combination of strategy and innovative technology that humans were able to carry out the work successfully. Because past, present and future supply chains are human.

Innovative technologies were employed to build Stonehenge, displayed in the shape of the stones and the engineering joints deployed to erect them, using techniques unique to their location. Much of today’s innovation stems from artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML), which can augment human intelligence to automate mundane tasks like managing thousands of lead times. Investment in these capabilities is a major driver behind digital transformation, which strengthens the role of technology in future supply chains.

AI/ML techniques hold incredible promise for supply chains specifically because they are masters at finding patterns in large amounts of data. Since the algorithms ‘learn’ by looking for patterns, they are most commonly ‘trained’ using copious amounts of historical data. Once an algorithm has learned the pattern from the training data, it uses that pattern to make predictions on an entirely new data set. These machine insights and automation can tackle a scale far beyond the cognitive capacity of humans.

Despite this, supply chain planning is an extensive and complex activity that needs to be shaped by humans. While technology has growing potential to automate some supply chain planning, we are still a long way from having fully autonomous supply chains. AI/ML can find predictive patterns in vast volumes of data but still lacks context, collaboration and conscience – all uniquely human attributes. Successful supply chains need balance AI/ML automation with the knowledge and involvement of humans.

Context, collaboration and conscience were all important elements that shaped the construction of Stonehenge. We may not know exactly why this monument was built, but whatever the exact purpose, its success was measured against the purpose it served for the ‘customer’ rather than how it was built. Similarly, the best measure of a supply chain is customer satisfaction alongside company success and growth. And as much as supply chains have evolved, the need for effective planning, the complexity of sourcing, and incorporation of new technologies are enduring elements. But perhaps the greatest continuity of all, although the one most in question today, is the role of humans.

Supply chains today face many disruptions, from issues sourcing fuel to challenges getting products on shelves. These disruptions make pattern-finding a challenge, and algorithms alone are unable to fully understand the context of these disruptions. It’s humans who possess the ability to derive meaning from context, so when disruptions arise, it is people who are able to use business acumen and domain expertise to make the best decisions for their supply chain

Collaboration is another key element of efficient supply chains where the input of humans has a crucial role to play. Humans must come together through partnerships and collaboration to build robust, resilient, and efficient supply chains. Even today, while mathematical analysis and algorithms can yield insights into relationships between data elements, they cannot build relationships between people. Human collaboration is likely to grow in importance over time, as the future will call for even more unique partnerships in a broader supply chain ecosystem, including 'co-opetition'.

When a supply chain faces disruption or has to go on allocation, it is human judgement that must decide the fastest, fairest way to distribute the goods. While humans can steer supply chains into trafficking in conflict minerals, or despoiling the planet, it is also human conscience that sounds the clarion call for change.

After all, even as automation is increasing as a means of driving machines and supply chains, humans still have an important seat to fill. AI/ML can provide invaluable machine intelligence, but human knowledge is still needed to operate supply chains within their context, through collaboration, and with conscience, because supply chains are and always will be human.

Polly Mitchell-Guthrie is VP of industry at Kinaxis.

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