The unsung spouse of innovation …
In an excellent article called The Greatest Show on Earth, author Guru Madhavan makes the case that while technological innovation is what makes the news, it’s the care and maintenance of technologies that is arguably more important.
“When the dazzling prominence of innovation overshadows the subtler, kinder, and attentive acts that characterize maintenance, it leads to the collapse of everyday expectations,” writes Madhavan which strikes me as both deeply insightful and remarkably obvious once you hear it said aloud. He goes on to state that “maintenance is the unsung partner that enables innovation.”
That sentiment is echoed in Kevin Kelly’s seminal (in my life, at least) book The Inevitable – a discourse on the convergences of technological innovations that will change our lives forever. Couched at the end of the very first paragraph of the very first chapter (not including the book’s introduction) is the sentence, “Existence, it seems, is chiefly maintenance.”
Both Madhavan and Kelly make it clear that if we cannot keep our current clocks running, so to speak, then – as the engineering adage goes – all those innovations simply degrade into vulnerabilities. However, society at large is conditioned to look to the newest and shiniest things with the potential to make big ripples throughout our lives. I am as guilty as the next guy of daydreaming about when we’re all going to be flying around with miniaturized rocket engines strapped to our backs. But if our continued existence hinges on the criticality of the ongoing maintenance of our innovations – and in fact if that ongoing maintenance is what is enabling those innovations to continue to manifest – then it’s time to reassess how we’re operating with what we have and how we’re making maintenance a key innovation unto itself.
The innovation of maintenance (in our supply chains)
It sounds a bit counterintuitive and it’s certainly not the sexiest place to put those R&D dollars, but it could be what keeps humanity humming for the foreseeable future. Let’s look at supply chains, by way of example, considering that we’ve all been reading about them in the news, and it serves as a solid inflection point.
The necessity of maintenance within our supply chains is not only more imperative than ever, but also more complex. And as these processes become more complex, so too do the processes for caring for, maintaining, and updating the technology that enables us to go about our lives without giving too much thought to the machinations how, say, our food actually goes from “farm to table.”
With that in mind, the care and maintenance of a supply chain relies on a few things:
Transparency: you can’t maintain what you can’t see, and you need to be able to see every piece of the chain – each movement and part in the designed web of making stuff. Without this element, it will become untenable to maintain these systems in the not-too-distant future. Embedded IoT components feeding predictive analytics means that the “invisible” transactions between trading partners can be monitored like never before.
Compatibility: transparency means very little if you can only “see” into a limited set of “things.” Compatibility comes in two important forms – the first is being “partner agnostic.” No matter what system you are using for managing your supply chain (though some are certainly better than others), you should be able to integrate with any other. The second is being able to connect your business to anything – we call that B2A – and it’s monumental in bringing end-to-end transparency throughout an entire supply ecosystem. “Connect once, access anything” as we like to say.
Agility: transparency and compatibility add up to a very important sum, agility. In a world that changes so quickly, maintenance becomes impossible without the agility to shift, pivot, react, preempt, and update. Innovations such as operational intelligence, which can adapt in real-time to disruptions in the ecosystem, means that your agility translates directly into resiliency.
But the greatest innovation for supply chains – the one which has enabled the possibility of each of these other elements to work seamlessly together – is cloud integration. I’m not just talking about digitizing operations as in taking old processes and making them speak in 1s and 0s. Supply chain cloud integration must be a rethink of operations with a SaaS-first mindset, and there are only a few companies in the market who are truly leading that charge.
These are all innovations that focus on improving the systems and processes (and those corresponding technologies) which supply … well, everything. Inherent in those systems, processes, and technologies is their “behind-the-scenes” nature. As the current headlines can attest, we only think about them when they’re not working and when they’re not working things can get very dicey very quickly, which circles us back to the importance of maintaining those systems, processes, and technologies. Lather, rinse, repeat.
This cost of entry sounds daunting, especially to small and medium businesses who don’t have the same resources that an enterprise might. 58% of respondents had a lack of bandwidth to implement new B2B integration capabilities but 77% of respondents had seen an acceleration in B2B integration requests from customers over the past 12 months. Startups have supply chains too, you know.