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How to Leverage Digital Technology in the Supply Chain

June 7, 2018
"The digital technologies hitting the marketplace today promise to make the changes in supply chain practice over the next five to 10 years dwarf that which we have seen in the last 10,” says Ted Stank, of UT’s Haslam College of Business.

As the pressures on supply chain teams—including those for sustainability, cost efficiency, and disruption and risk mitigation—are increasing and growing in complexity, supply chain organizations are struggling to both collect and analyze an overwhelming amount of data scattered across different processes, sources, and siloed systems.

Under these conditions, it is exceedingly difficult to manage and monitor the complete supply chain—resulting in unnecessary risk exposure, disruptions, and delays, as well as increased costs, according to a new report from the University of Tennesse Global Supply Chain Institute (GSCI).

The report, A SAVVY Guide to the Digital Supply Chain, outlines several emerging trends at top companies and provides a framework for evaluating technologies and creating a digital supply chain strategy. It also defines the most prominent digital technologies for supply chain managers, including artificial intelligence, cognitive computing, big data, blockchain, the internet of things, and predictive and prescriptive analytics.

“There’s no meaningful way for any company to try to adopt every technology currently relevant to supply chain,” says Shay Scott, executive director of the GSCI. “Digitalization is about generating new forms of value, which requires careful coordination between your current data resources, experts, and management."

Scott and his co-authors, Ted Stank and Ben Hazen, note that a digital strategy framework starts with a solid approach to collecting and managing sources of data. They emphasize leveraging the analytical capabilities of artificial intelligence to describe, predict, and make decisions based on high-volume unstructured data. They also recommend becoming well-versed in a technology and using it in a variety of applications, above all making sure there is a plan for adopted technologies to provide value to the organization.

“The digital technologies hitting the marketplace today and in the near future promise to make the changes in supply chain practice over the next five to 10 years dwarf that which we have seen in the last 10,” says Stank, the Bruce Chair of Excellence at UT’s Haslam College of Business, of the trends uncovered in his research. 

Benchmark companies are rethinking data storage, moving away from databases and document-centered practices toward the use of advanced analytical abilities to access individual data points no matter how the information is organized. These companies also create new ways to collaborate inside and outside their organization to increase transparency and visibility in supply chains. To meet the unique needs of their business, they often stack technologies. Leaders in the field are preparing for the nature of the workplace to dramatically change, and they want to ensure that their employees have the training to keep up with technology.

Jeanette Barlow, IBM vice president of supply chain solutions, believes digital technologies will transform supply chain management roles. “Supply chain leaders are masters of disruption management,” Barlow says. “But they spend a tremendous amount of time fighting fires they never saw coming. Digital technologies, especially artificial intelligence, give them the deep visibility they need to proactively mitigate disruption and risk to build a smarter supply chain, allowing them to focus more on the strategic needs of the business.”

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