An Ancient Solution to a Digital Problem

By Ken Chadwick | December 07, 2021 | 0 Comments

Supply ChainPower of the ProfessionSupply Chain Strategy, Leadership and GovernanceTechnology and Solutions for Supply Chain and Operations

Digital problems require digital solutions, right?

If a digital organization is supposed to be agile, use data to make decisions and quickly adopt new technologies, there must be a way to structure the organization to get to that outcome. Many companies are looking to evolve by restructuring the functions of their supply chain, adding new digital roles and teams and building digital skills in their people. But will that be enough to make the shift? Can the technology itself get us the results we seek?


What’s keeping organizations from the next level of performance are challenges like conflicting goals and incentives, the inability to coordinate processes, lack of visibility across supply chain and a lack of cross-functional teamwork. Often, it is not the structure of the organization blocking the way to higher performance. It is the way in which leaders and staff work together that keeps supply chain organizations from being truly “digital.”

The Ancient Solution

For hundreds of thousands of years, humans have worked together in communities, operating supply chains, innovating and adopting new technology and building ever-more-complex solutions to the challenges of growing societies and businesses. Our ability to work cooperatively in these communities differentiates us from most of the other species on the planet. Yet, in business, the notion of communities often gets set aside. Staff may be encouraged to think more mechanistically, favoring siloes, processes and tools over people, relationships and collaboration. Our progress towards control, risk reduction and efficiency is getting in the way of our ability to progress in our digital pursuits.

The solution is for supply chain leaders to reconsider their role in the organization. Instead of being decision-makers and risk mitigators, they must focus on developing staff, building relationships, building communities and being a connector between their staff and the myriad resources they need to get things done. They need to be community leaders, community organizers and community activists.

Start By Defining Networks That Build Community

There are a lot of different types of communities to which we belong in our personal lives: family, sports teams, theater troupes, bands, clubs, volunteer organizations, civil organizations and religious organizations. Similarly, we can, and should, belong to multiple communities within our businesses. Instead of just affiliating ourselves with supply chain or a specific function, we can affiliate ourselves with multiple networks related to the outcomes needed for the business:

  • Process networks (S&OP or NPI) to promote collaboration across multiple functions.
  • Innovation networks (through crowdsourcing challenges) to promote fast-cycle ideation and involvement.
  • Expert networks (planning) to foster learning and development on topics of interest to us.
  • Interest group networks (baking, music, sports) to provide social connections, making staff feel like they are a part of a community in a virtual world.

Defining different networks with different missions gives people the opportunity to learn, build relationships, solve problems and resolve conflicts in productive ways. These networks allow communities to form that can then be leveraged when disruption hits, when we need to communicate a new strategy or when we need to learn new technologies. During the pandemic, it was the forming of new communities (war rooms, tiger teams, triage teams, daily standups) that allowed businesses to share data, develop options, make decisions and execute on those decisions quickly in response to the disruption.

Step Up to the Community Leadership Challenge

It isn’t easy being a manager, and it is even harder to be a leader focused on engaging people to work collectively across the supply chain. While staff may want to be part of a community that is driving outcomes for the business, they may find it difficult to engage. Among other things, a successful community will have these three things:

  1. Purpose: The leader will build a sense for what the team is meant to do, will define who is part of the team and will build a sense of belonging in the members.
  2. Safety: Members will only participate when they feel as though they are valued, they can be open with their ideas with colleagues, they can share ideas with their leaders and they can take risks and fail without being punished. When people feel safe they will feel more inclined to participate in the work of the community.
  3. Accountability: Individual accountability is important, and when people make commitments, the community must be able to count on them to follow-through. Without follow-through there cannot be trust, and without trust there cannot be productive collaboration. Team members must feel comfortable holding each other accountable, and they must feel like the rules of accountability are applied equally across the community.

Our data suggests gaps in leadership that must be addressed for people to work more effectively together. The increased access to digital tools and data will only be as good as our community’s ability to envision how they can be applied to business challenges. An investment in the ancient art of community building is a key part of our ability to become digital supply chains.

Ken Chadwick
Vice President Analyst
Gartner Supply Chain

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