Usually, I'm more than impressed with the quality and the thought behind the content in Supply Chain Management Review. It's a publication that manages to wedge itself between traditional trade publications and business/academic journals when it comes to analyzing procurement and supply chain related issues. But in my opinion, a recent article analyzing the future of technology in the sector came up short. As I read the article, it sounded to me like a bunch of non-practitioners and non-technologists gathering around a whiteboard -- with a few pages of research and interview notes tossed in on the conference table for good measure -- to pontificate about what has been and therefore what should be.
In my book, the reason these types of analyses about emerging technologies miss the mark is because they assume linear progression (despite their frequent use of terms such as "disruptive"). The problem is that the future does not fit well into a 2/2 matrix (or a 3/3 as they try to show it). Over the years as a scenario planning practitioner, I've observed that the problem with most types of academic forecasting about the future is that they assume a steady environment that will pretty much be the same from year-to-year, plus or minus 10 percent, just like all budgeting and forecasting estimates. But the future is not a straight line that goes up to the right. Rather, it's a hodgepodge of shapes and theories, many of which are simply impossible to predict -- especially using traditional planning tools and approaches. This means that we all need to stay flexible in our willingness to embrace what might be coming around the corner.
But when it comes to planning for the future, there are ways of looking at how technology will play a role -- not to mention examining the building blocks of what will form future technologies. For example, even though you might not actively use -- and you might even distrust -- technologies like Facebook, Linked-in, Twitter and Dopplr, I believe they can teach us about how emerging procurement and supply chain applications will look in the future in sharp contrast to where they are today. In contrast, the authors of the above-referenced piece suggest that simply "collaboration" will form the basis of the future, rehashing many of the same discussions and ideas that you've been reading on Spend Matters, Supply Excellence, Sourcing Innovation, and E-Sourcing Form, among other blogs and sites from the past few years. I don't think I read a single thing in their definition of collaboration that I haven't read elsewhere -- in many cases, three to five years earlier.
The key takeaway -- at least for me -- in all of this is that academics, academic organizations and think-tanks should be far down on your go-to list for what to expect in the future. This is too bad, because in many other areas of enterprise technology, true innovation comes from academia (e.g., Google, Yahoo, etc.). But it just is not the case when it comes to procurement and supply chain. In my view, if you want to get a glimpse of what is really around the future in this space, there are a handful of bloggers, vendor executives, and independent thinkers whom I believe have far more insightful and original things to say than Supply Chain Management Review on the subject. At the top of the list is Hackett's Pierre Mitchell, who is probably the most forward thinking individual that I know in the sector. If you ever get a chance to hear him speak or to push him on what is coming around the pike, he'll expand your mind (and maybe someday, capture a bit of your wallet as well, if he ever gets around to putting into reality some of the ideas he's been conceiving for all of these years).