Interview with Oskar Verkamman, Chairman Logistics 4.0 & Smart Supply Chain Management Summit
Oskar Verkamman, Managing Director and co-owner of Inspired-Search, will be chairing Corporate Parity’s upcoming Logistics 4.0 & Smart Supply Chain Management Summit in Singapore. Since becoming involved with Inspired-Search in 2011, he has excelled in placing the right people in the right positions; always with the cultural fit in mind.
Besides being key in running both professional development programmes and activities and the day-to-day management of the organisation, Oskar primarily focuses on senior executive search assignments for both permanent and interim positions. His focus areas are the Netherlands, Europe and Asia, across all industries, including logistics service providers and private equity. Oskar has spent a considerable amount of time abroad, including living in China, which has left him with a special interest in multicultural teams and business cultures.
A regular speaker and thought leader, Oskar often contributes articles on supply chain and operations management. He actively maintains an international network of professionals and companies and is a practiced speaker, moderator and chairman of industry-specific conferences in Europe and Asia. Oskar also sits in a number of non-profit boards and in his spare time he is an active sportsman with an appetite for outdoor adventure activities.
In the exclusive interview with Corporate Parity he shared his views on the future of Supply Chain in the digital age.
What role does the human factor play in Supply Chain management?
That’s a really good question; before I start to answer, I would like to get the definition of Supply Chain right. If I think of Supply Chain, I automatically include the up and downstream partners: suppliers to your process, including manufacturing, but also your logistics partners, government and your customers. Basically, all parties involved in fulfilling a customer order/request. Today the supply chains are still pretty much organised and developed in silos. The Supply Chain of your supplier might live in a completely separated ecosystem in relation to your own Supply Chain. The human factor and intervention remain critical to align all Supply Chains and interfaces. Systems getting smarter and smarter and the role of the human will become to set the business rules, stimulate and initiate innovation and manage the exceptions. I don’t believe the importance of the human in the Supply Chain will increase significantly, but it is changing at the same time.
A lot of manual labour in supply chain is now becoming automated, and it poses a concern for some workers, as they worry about being replaced by machines. What is your outlook for the future? Will robots replace humans, or will they rather assist them and enhance human labour?
Robotics to this day has been more about automated machines carrying out repeated tasks, i.e. in automotive plants. In all fairness, robots have been rather unintelligent until now, and we still needed humans to work around robots. This is, however, about to change. Machines are getting smarter every day and can do a variety of tasks, even coordinate their work with other machines. To have all your workforce centralised in one location might not be necessary anymore; we might move into a decentralised form of production with fewer and fewer humans involved. All industrial revolutions created more jobs than they diminished; this may not be the case this time around. We will see robots popping in all forms and shapes, not necessarily in manufacturing only. Think about self-driving cars, automated supermarkets, etc.
Those machines will not only work but also generate enormous amounts of data. With AI in place and good analysis, the machines will literally improve their own efficiency. AI will also give us a leap forward in the field of predictive analytics, rather than our current, pretty much reactive model. The IBM Watson has already developed an application that will predict when a component will go faulty. Repair or replacement can be done before the component even goes down. Those systems will continue to improve their decision-making capabilities by continuously monitoring the data and adjusting their assumptions (deep learning).
Luckily enough, it will take some time before the machines will be smarter than us, if that point comes at all.
Could you provide examples of human-technology integration occurring in the supply chain now?
Ah, interesting one. I’m not thinking so much of actual integrating, in the sense of Google glass etc, but more of how we have, over a very small amount of time, integrated technology in almost everything we do. I don’t have the exact numbers, but I confidently guess that more than half of the current workers entered the workforce without mobile telephony and smartphones. Half of them even started without any computers at all. So, if we look back, it is amazing how easily and quickly we embraced all those new technologies, almost without any hesitation. It’s only been 12 years since the first smartphone was introduced, and now everyone has instant access to information that required teams of people to work on for days in the past.
That gives me confidence that we will be able to adapt to new technologies as they present themselves. At the same time, I don’t think we should try to adopt everything that comes by. I still see a lot of operations that are not automated and/or digitalised. Focus should be on leveraging what’s available today, rather than trying to be an early adopter of anything that’s new.
When it comes to supply chain management and problem solving, which human qualities do you feel cannot be replaced by AI?
At the end of the day AI is not so much intelligence, but rather brute computer power. AI is very good at reviewing all possible options, while humans typically lack in that aspect. The more data we have at hand for making decisions, the more complex the process becomes; the less data we have, the more we struggle to make a decision at all.
One thing we can do much better than AI’s predefined algorithms, is coming up with creative solutions and making unusual associations. For example, AI might become very good at demand planning, but the demand planner can throw in all kinds of other parameters in the decision-making hat. One of our customers, a fresh food producer, sees big spikes in demand in certain conditions; the very first nice warm day in early summer, combined with an extra bank holiday and an important football match on television might trigger what they call a BBQ alarm. The demand planner understands this, but AI will struggle to foresee the spike in demand.
What are the right skill sets for the supply chain professional of the future?
Apart from functional skill sets it has become vital to have a very high level of adaptability and flexibility. The world is changing so fast and at such an increasing rate that you have to prepare yourself for the next change. Simply assuming that your role will be still there in a few years’ time is very dangerous. Your role might be gone completely, or moved to another part of the world.
In other words, you have to keep yourself extremely mobile and attractive to the labour market. Continuous learning is paramount, and this will never stop. In our recruitment practise we see our clients not having issues with ages, but they do have issues with people who stop developing themselves, or have limited flexibility.
How do you expect the industry to evolve in the next years? Which new challenges and opportunities does the new technology pose for the industry in general and individual development within it?
The industry will be extremely data-driven. I haven’t done any study in this field, but from our practise we see an increase in demand for people with very good data analysis skills. Not necessarily the data crunchers, but people who know which questions to ask and how to get the answers.
Getting some useful information from your corporate datasets is one thing. Being able to explain this at the boardroom level and influence the strategic decision-making is a whole new ball game. At all levels we see that great communication skills are critical to be successful; having said that, I don’t think it is something new. This has always been the case and will be the case in the future as well.