How to Create an Agile Workforce for the Future

Developing an Agile Supply Chain Workforce for the Future

by Lucy Alexander, Capabilities Leader, Global Supply Chain & Strategy, AstraZeneca

Lucy Alexander, Capabilities Leader, Global Supply Chain & Strategy for AstraZeneca

Whenever I think of “people” of the future, my brain automatically goes to Terminator and Mad Max. I sincerely hope that’s not what we’ll be dealing with though! Thinking practically, people working across supply chain networks will need to be prepared for the future – due to a quickly-evolving external environment and many company’s internal desires to embrace new technologies and ways of working. However, getting our workforce from Point A to Point B is not so simple and will require strategic thinking and long-term planning.

We’re starting to come out of one of the most transformational global experiences in history, one that we’re still digesting. It may be on par with the space program in terms of accelerating fundamental changes to how we think, live and work. Only a few years ago, we recognized the 50th anniversary of the US putting the first man on the moon in 1969. That achievement – the product of decades of work by tens of thousands of people — literally changed the way we think about our entire world, our entire universe, and our potential as humans. We saw a human being walk somewhere other than earth. It’s ultimately responsible for computers, imagery technology used daily for routine medical diagnoses today, GPS on our phones. It even led to space travel becoming a new tourism industry.

We supply chain professionals, of course, aren’t targeting a crater-filled natural satellite floating out in space. Our target is our very own supply chain sites and offices. We’re striving towards a future way of working catapulted with new technologies and new ways of thinking, where our workforce is united by a common purpose and that delivers value to the world that was previously unimaginable. We’re starting to see some broader awareness today of the potential of supply chain. It’s a monumental opportunity for all of us in the industry.

Data and technology will make our people and our processes more efficient

Big Data and Artificial Intelligence will have a huge impact on supply chains.The supply chain workforce will need to reflect this fact.

Let’s start with technology. I personally can’t wait for artificial intelligence (AI) to become widespread in supply chain. It literally gives us super-human abilities to deal with complexity. We all understand the huge number of variables across any supply chain. For any single SKU, let’s focus just on the raw materials that go into it, the very first step in the supply chain and supply process alone, and here are just some of the variables:

  • What percentage of the time does any one of those materials suppliers deliver on time?
  • What’s the breakdown between delays in the raw materials (RM) manufacturing process, and logistics to get it to the manufacturing site?
  • How do you model what’s happening right now with RM and logistics capacities?
  • What percentage of deliveries are right first time?
  • What’s the range of incoming receipt times for that material?
  • What’s the range of times getting it from the warehouse to the manufacturing line?
  • What’s the range of manufacturing times for that material or SKU on that line?

Multiply that across all the materials that go into that SKU, and then multiply it across all the products and all your supply chains. And that’s just the beginning. We can all imagine that the almost endless list of variables and data. We all know that any one of those factors can vary or be disrupted at any time, and even if we’re not operating just-in-time that’s likely to trigger significant supply disruption. The level of disruption is even worse if those events happen in the same production run, or across several production runs on the same line, or in the same supply chain.

"As more of the number-crunching, head-scratching, data management and supply chain decision-making is taken off our plates through data and automated digital tools, our ability to drive bigger business objectives will improve." -Lucy Alexander… Click To Tweet

That’s what AI and “big data” will help to solve for us: take all of those variables, crunch them, project them, monitor them, run simulations of most likely impacts, recommend mitigations, and flag to you the optimized outcome, or potential outcomes for you to choose from. Sounds wonderful, right?

But obviously this makes us even more dependent on good data, hence the need for large quantities of data scientists to understand what datasets are needed and relevant, where they’re going to come from, how to connect them, how to build meaningful models, and in many cases be able to build those models into the information systems that will provide all the horsepower for these massive data crunching exercises. That means we’ll need more people with math, statistics or computer science backgrounds in our supply chain teams, currently found more in quantitively heavy areas outside of supply chain such as the sciences and R&D, or big data companies like Amazon, Google, and Facebook. These are massive amounts of data that will need to flow continuously and accurately. This will require people with programming skills who understand how to build models and simulations that can answer some of our most crucial and currently frustrating analytics questions, to respond – or even better anticipate — some of our most pressing business needs.

But these people we will also need to understand how a modern supply chain works, since that’s what they’ll be modeling. Earlier we listed potentially hundreds of variables for just one SKU. But only some of those will have a significant impact on the final output — the availability of that SKU to a customer, its cost, the inventory associated with it, and increasingly its environmental impact. If there are hundreds of container ships anchored in oceans around the world right now and warehouses are full, and if we can’t move the products that we have, how could we have avoided it? What if we had had all the data and an understanding of what it was telling us six months ago?

As more of the number-crunching, head-scratching, data management and supply chain decision-making is taken off our plates through data and automated digital tools, our ability to drive bigger business objectives will improve. Supply chain is undoubtedly a key driver of business results – profit and loss, sales, revenues, margin, working capital, fixed assets, the balance sheet. As I referenced earlier, these business objectives will also expand, to include for instance environmental sustainability. At AstraZeneca, we manage this at a high level today, we build it into both our long-term strategies and our one-year objectives, and then we execute against them. We assess how we’re doing against those objectives periodically. But, what if everyone in our organization, every time they make a decision every day, could run an optimization model on these different elements to see the impact of the decision they’re about to make across different business objectives? Will that change what they need to know, and how they need to think? What if you could run an analysis every day to see the sum of the impacts of all those decisions every day? Would that make us better a what we do?

New ways of working within the supply chain and beyond

As supply chain work evolves, so will the skills of the workforce, along with our tools and our ways of working.

One of the critical roles the supply chain group also plays in any organization is explaining and feeding those data-driven recommendations and actions to the rest of the organization. Whether it’s manufacturing – to help them understand why they now need to change their schedule to something completely opposite to what it was before — or marketing – to explain why the optimal supply may look different from what they’re projecting. So our ability as a function to tell those stories and paint the picture to make it understandable and compelling becomes even more important, although what those stories look like will be different.

In order to build all of these considerations into one organization, the organizational structure will need to evolve, re-evaluating how roles and teams work together and re-aligning the capabilities needed to get any specific task or work deliverable done. Individuals – or increasingly “groups of skillsets” – will be dedicated to a specific set of tasks or objective for more limited time horizons, as the pace of our actions and reactions gets faster. With greater automation of tasks and entire workflows, and faster pace and response to changes, we expect to see a major shift to more fluid, project-structured work. Your team structures will need to be flexible enough to accommodate that.

The next key question is “how” will these people work? For me, I think it was the middle of March 2020 when I, along with a large portion of my 75,000 AstraZeneca colleagues around the world, received the directive to work from home every day, effective immediately. According to Microsoft, as of April 2021, MS Teams usage had jumped 450% since the start of the pandemic. Two years ago, I remember thinking that Zoom was something esoteric that only tech companies and consultants used. Now it’s a global standard, even for my 91-year old mother in her nursing home! We don’t just talk about it as a technology anymore; it’s how we do our work.

"The focus moving forward will need to be on how to create a meaningful employee experience just as we frequently think of our customer or user experiences." -Lucy Alexander @Astrazeneca Click To Tweet

But because the shift from previous ways of working shifted literally overnight, we are all still bridging the gap from ‘old’ ways of working to taking full advantage of the full functionality the new collaboration technologies provide. Microsoft reported that as a result, worldwide there has been an increase of meetings by 148%, and 4.8 billion more emails were sent in Feb 2021 than Feb 2020. At the same time, colleagues are working much more closely globally, across multiple time zones,, and that’s only going to increase as the data availability goes up. Clearly, this isn’t sustainable in the long-term.

This will only get better when we fully let go of our old ways of working, and this demands that we embrace the new technologies and ways of working to improve efficiencies and make working globally easier. Much of what is traditionally achieved by coming together in person and at the same time can actually be achieved asynchronously. While asynchronous information-sharing for example seems obvious, it still requires a major behavioral shift since we currently bundle it together with other activities and consume unnecessary time in meetings.

Brainstorming, problem solving, action planning – or at least some of it — can be done through online, asynchronous collaboration. By becoming very targeted and intentional in the actual tasks done collectively in a group versus what can done individually or asynchronously, meetings will become shorter, punchier, focused more on the human dynamics of exchanging and crafting of ideas, with any prerequisites needed to make that successful happening offline. That’s not to say we won’t ever work together in person ever again. We’re still human after all! But the balance of our time will be different, and the activities that we do live in person vs. connecting online.

Fostering a sense of purpose

Since the pandemic, many people have reconsidered their purpose in life and at work. It will likely become a powerful factor in attracting and retaining supply chain workforce talent, as well as fostering a happy and productive team.

The strictures of the pandemic have shifted many people’s mindsets about how they spend their time – their hours in a day, their years of life.

According to a recent McKinsey study:

  • Nearly 2/3 of US respondents said COVID-19 has caused them to re-think their purpose in life.
  • Millennials – the largest generation in our workforce — were three times as likely to respond that way.
  • 70% of respondents said their sense of purpose is largely influenced by their work,
  • Yet only 15% of front-line workers or managers in the survey said they find they live their purpose through their work.

The need for purpose in work and life isn’t a new concept and many companies already communicate regularly to employees about their missions, vision, purpose, community involvement, etc. But employees have become more discerning in how they listen and what they look for. Since more of their personal contact will come directly from their manager in future, they need to see it and feel it directly from their managers and leaders. Another disconnect is between what employees are looking for and what employers are focused on. Employees want to feel valued by their employer, while employers are focused on how much they pay them. This is another factor in current attrition rates. The focus moving forward will need to be on how to create a meaningful employee experience just as we frequently think of our customer or user experiences.

Line managers have the greatest impact on any individual employee, especially in the new world with more limited live contact beyond the direct manager. So as employees will be looking for employers and leaders to “walk the talk” managers will need to interact with employees differently to meet new expectations, demonstrating that they can provide what employees are looking for — more flexibility, deeper trust, more transparency, and shorter adaptation times.

Bringing it all together

The agile supply chain workforce of the future has:

  • Facility to generate, maintain and manage large amounts of data, and the ability to analyze and model it to support more nuanced, detailed and frequent decision-making than we do today;
  • Widespread, deep understanding of complex supply chain dynamics, the ability to see in the data what’s coming, and know how to react or plan ahead;
  • Broader understanding of our business objectives and how any individual decision or action on a daily basis can impact those;
  • The ability to boil that understanding down into a clear, concise, compelling story to communicate with partners, other functions, senior management and stakeholders, frequently not in person;
  • The ability to bring together geographically and culturally dispersed and diverse teams through technology, with limited live connections, to craft, shape, plan and solve problems, at the speed of bytes;
  • New skills in written, verbal and visual communication that use the full functionality of these new collaboration technologies;
  • A shared sense of purpose with their employer that goes beyond slogans and taglines, and depends on…
  • Heightened managerial skills that replaces a sometimes transactional relationship with an employee to a deeper connection and trust.

We have such an exciting future ahead. Those kids who have been saying for 50 years they want to be astronauts? Maybe they’ll say they want to be supply chain professionals.


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Lucy Alexander
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