Seeking Balance in the Digital Supply Chain


June 19, 2017

I like to tell my students that I was alive at the birth of the Internet…and no I didn’t know Al Gore. I worked for a now defunct supply chain portal during the early century Web 1.0 era and I have the stock option certificates framed and hanging on my office wall to prove it. I also have a box of denim shirts with a classic logo!

Prior to that, and while employed as a supply manager in a Boston area high tech manufacturer, I attended graduate school to earn a masters degree in management. Part of that program was the development of a master’s thesis. Trying to bridge the academic world and the practical one, I decided to research how the Internet might impact supplier relationships. It had a fancy title, The Effect of the Internet on Marketing to the Supply Management Function in the Industrial Marketplace, and contained lots of research, statistical surveys, and many supplier interviews.

The 20-year anniversary of that pre-cloud project is upon us and the principle question is still the same: how do we balance what we now call the digital supply chain with important human…buyer and seller… relationships? A decade ago suppliers were worried that the increasing use of the Internet was going to eliminate the need for supplier relationships from the sell side. Today’s buyers are worried that an increasingly digital supply chain is removing the relationship power from their side of the equation. If all commercial processes are automated, where do the people fit in?

Just how do we balance the ‘e’ and the ‘we’?

Some say maybe we can’t. Automation has not only found the factory floor but administrative processes as well. Increasingly sophisticated ERP systems, once reserved for the very large companies, are making for comprehensive workflow processes that have become mainstream for all sized companies. E-commerce and EDI automates customer and supplier interactions allowing for the true end to end management of the integrated supply chain. Lights out manufacturing is the norm in many industries. In some organizations, all transactions are digital, from customer request to fulfillment to payment. There are indeed less people involved in the process these days…any process…as the latest call to your bank or cable supplier can confirm.

But I say we can achieve that balance. Far from a Luddite, I think automation and technology actually frees us up to work on more of the human relationship side of the business. I need accurate performance data and real time information and reporting to manage my suppliers. But, I also want relationships with them. I negotiate better face to face, my engineers may need some onsite technical support, and I want to see who is building my product, or at least who is minding the robots on any given day.

Automate the mundane and give me the freedom, and tools, to conduct business on my terms.

That’s balance to me.

Rich Weissman Bio:

A practitioner turned educator, Rich Weissman has more than twenty-five years of practical experience in all facets of procurement, operations and supply chain management for Boston area high technology manufacturers. He is a past president of the Purchasing Management Association of Boston (ISM-GB) and the recipient of the Harry J. Graham Memorial Award, the highest honor bestowed by the Association. As a college professor, Weissman teaches operations management, supply chain management, entrepreneurship, strategy and policy, and managerial economics at the graduate and undergraduate levels. He writes and speaks extensively on issues impacting the global supply chain, with a primary focus on creating scalable and sustainable supply chain strategies for early stage and small businesses.

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