Thoughts from Gartner’s Supply Chain Conference

Supply chain leading the way is the theme of this year's conference

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“Supply chain led the decade.” So declared Debra Hofman and Noha Tohamy to kick off Gartner’s Supply Chain Executive Conference in Phoenix on Monday. Hofman and Tohamy are both vice presidents of research at the analyst firm. The annual event here in the desert brings together supply chain leaders from around the globe – so far this year, I’ve heard presentations from supply chain executives from Schneider Electric, Colgate Palmolive, GlaxoSmithKline, and 3M, to name just four.

While Hofman and Tohamy presented a number of impressive bullets to illustrate their contention, at the bottom what they were really talking about is that supply chain has evolved from a logistics-focused cost of doing business – although it still includes logistics – to an enabler of business strategy. In fact, at the end of her remarks, Tohamy encouraged attendees to “Be bold and go beyond the focus on cost to be enablers of new processes and businesses.”

If you look at how a supply chain centric company like Amazon is turning the retail and wholesale distribution industries upside down or how an innovator like Apple uses its supply chain to get new products into the hands of consumers, its hard to argue with their statement.

In the pages of Modern, I’ve profiled how companies as divergent as Gilt Groupe, MSC Industrial, Fanatics, DSW, and Wirtz Beverage have designed distribution processes specifically to enable new business strategies. In Supply Chain Management Review, I’ve recently published articles describing how IBM, Air International Thermal Systems (AITS) – owned by private equity firm Unitas Capital, and Red Wing Shoes have used their supply chain processes to power their businesses.

What then has been the topic of the conference? Here are three initial take aways.

The supply chain is a big umbrella: Topics of sessions I’ve sat in on ranged from the transformational, such as Big Data, digital manufacturing and supply chain segmentation, to discussions of the every day, such as distribution and logistics.

There is a lot of talk about the importance of talent, but talent management is not yet a priority: One of Monday’s keynotes was presented by Linda Topping, the chief procurement officer for Colgate Palmolive. The thrust of her presentation was the coming shortage of supply chain talent and how Colgate Palmolive is rethinking its business to attract the best young talent out there. “If you don’t do talent management, you will struggle in the next decade,” Topping said.

During today’s keynote, Chris Holmes, the senior vice president of supply chain at 3M, explained how he writes an internal blog and responds to every comment, even those from the maintenance worker at a plant in Georgia. At the same time, talent management is among the bottom five priorities of chief supply chain officers in Gartner’s 2014 Chief Supply Chain Officer study. Mike Burkett, the Gartner executive who presented the findings, also noted the disconnect between many of the pronouncements we make versus the survey results.

In Burkett’s view, supply chain officers know they need to pay attention to talent, yet too often they find themselves in the middle of process improvements or cost management initiatives and talent gets pushed to the side. Burkett’s warning: “It’s important to remember that often, improvements aren’t sustainable, they’re elastic. Initially, we realize benefits and over time they snap back to where they were before the process improvement if we don’t pay attention to people.”

Companies are beginning to emphasize culture: Caveat Emptor – I’m about to publish two pieces on the importance of culture in the July issue of Supply Chain Management Review. However, the importance of culture – the how and why of what a company does – is entering our vocabulary. Colgate’s Topping referred to her company’s culture and said: “Knowing that how we do things is as important as what we do,” during her presentation.

After talking about process improvements, 3M’s Holmes said “If we can change the culture, we can do anything.” Robert Coyle, vice president of global logistics for GlaxoSmithKline, introduced his company’s culture at the start of his presentation, saying that “There is a person who is using a GSK product at the end of our supply chain. We ensure products move through the supply chain to get to those people.”

I’m going to be interested in how our industry integrates that idea of culture into our operations going forward. And, how culture may lead the way for supply chain.

About the Author

Patrick Burnson, Executive Editor
Patrick Burnson is executive editor for Logistics Management and Supply Chain Management Review magazines and web sites. Patrick is a widely-published writer and editor who has spent most of his career covering international trade, global logistics, and supply chain management. He lives and works in San Francisco, providing readers with a Pacific Rim perspective on industry trends and forecasts. You can reach him directly at [email protected]

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