You may have heard that artificial intelligence has become one of the hottest tech trends of the year. I’ve certainly heard that; of course, when I first heard that, the year they were talking about was 1988, nearly 30 years ago, when I became one of a handful of reporters covering the then-nascent AI industry. Actually, AI never really became an industry all its own, as most of the companies either went out of business or were acquired by larger and more broadly-defined solution providers.
AI ended up becoming more widely-used and popular when users accepted it as a tool rather than the entire toolbox. So while it’s true that the Lisp machines of the 1980s never caught on, virtually everybody has used Google’s AI-based search engine or a smartphone’s voice recognition capabilities, and today AI is considered hot again because of how it’s making good products better.
AI is also at the heart of most supply chain management software, which is not really a secret so much as it is a fact that nobody pays much attention to. But it’s the algorithmic power of the software that makes it possible to plan and execute supply chain strategies at the enterprise level. I had the chance to revisit my old AI roots while seeing the latest and greatest in supply chain technology on a recent media visit to JDA’s Supply Chain Lab in Montreal. (The reason, by the way, the lab is based in Montreal is because of the seminal research into machine learning that’s taken place at the University of Montreal, where many of JDA’s employees studied.)
JDA’s products have deep roots in the short-but-frenetic history of the supply chain marketplace, as the company includes the assets of such vendors as i2 Technologies, Manugistics and RedPrairie. And a major focus of the company today is on the retail industry, particularly since many of JDA’s retail customers complain of feeling disconnected from their customers.
“We tell our retail customers looking for strategic advice: Get away from a product-centric view and adopt a customer-centric view,” explains Wayne Usie, JDA’s chief market development officer. And that’s exactly what’s happening at their Supply Chain Lab, where researchers and developers are using various AI technologies (e.g., natural language, computer vision, deep learning, robotics) to help their customers learn to predict when and how many and how often consumers will purchase their products. You can’t presume to know what your customers will want tomorrow just because they bought something from you yesterday or today.
JDA’s forays into listening to the voice of the customer, in fact, parallels our own efforts here at MH&L, where we’ve been engaging readers both new and old—as well as people who aren’t readers at all—in ad hoc focus groups and interviews to learn exactly what they’re looking for from business publications, and where they access it. As you might suspect, while Baby Boomers are still big fans of print, the younger generations who are increasingly occupying positions of importance in the industry—Gen X-ers and Millennials and even the Centennials—don’t have nearly the attachment to print that their parents did. In fact, their familiarity with B2B trade publications is much more likely to come via a search engine accessed through a smartphone or tablet (there’s AI again!).
What I’m leading up to (if you haven’t already figured it out by our new logo, revamped print magazine and completely reengineered website) is that we’ve overhauled the MH&L brand—wherever you might interact with us—to provide you with more and easier access to the latest material handling and logistics reporting and trends analysis. Just as smartphones are revolutionizing the way consumers can interact with retailers and manufacturers, they also allow you—our readers—to stay connected 24/7 to the latest news and developments impacting the supply chain.
Along with the fresher look-and-feel to our digital and print products, we’re also expanding our coverage and reporting into the areas you’ve told us are most important to you, particularly when it comes to technology, workforce issues and best practices. Our intent, as ever, is to keep you engaging with our content as long as possible, and if that means we’ve got to provide you with even more essential content to do so, then that’s what we’ll do.
As we say here in our offices, maintaining the status quo is not a growth strategy. And taking a lesson learned from the AI field and applying it more tactically to any company trying to compete in the era of unrelenting digital disruptions: Focusing on the customer is always the best way to have a successful product.