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“Wat the?” 5 things I learnt about Watson Supply Chain in Vegas

Rather than adopting the “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” mantra, I wanted to share some new insights into Watson that I gleaned at IBM’s mega thought leadership event – Think 2018.

1. Watson needs education – but it’s a fast learner!

When you think of Watson, you probably think of a computer that can win Jeopardy and has a PhD in a whole lot of things…but in reality, when Watson enters a new profession, it is like a child that needs to learn.

As humans, we learn from birth and can only pass on that knowledge to someone who in turn spends time learning.  AI, like Watson, is similar. It learns by gathering information (i.e. data) and interacting with humans.

You could liken Watson Supply Chain today to a  5th-grader, but its rate of growth is so exponential that it will have a Master’s Degree in Supply Chain within the next three months.

How? Because IBM’s own supply chain practitioners are training it daily by feeding their US$30Bn spend through Watson, pushing through millions of documents, data elements and hundreds of real life supply chain challenges that are resolved each day in the Watson Resolution room. Last year, Watson supported $71.7 billion in revenue, managed 150,000 contracts, and supported 20,000 professionals and 11,000 suppliers to ensure 5,000,000 deliveries were made.

With every insightful response and interaction, Watson is getting smarter. The more Watson is used, the more knowledgeable and insightful it becomes.

I first met Watson at the Gartner Supply Chain Executive conference in London last year. Catching up six months later at Think 2018 in Vegas… even I could see the growth.  Watson is now answering supply chain questions in natural language (plain English), and can curate what is most critical for you to pay attention to – alerting you to an impending disruption, immediately assessing the financial impact of the disruption and will help you drill down effectively to understanding what the issues are that you want your team to resolve, and quickly. Watson does this through opening a resolution room, quickly providing answers that typically reside in different system which reducing the time needed to write emails, make phone calls and follow-ups.

The team at IBM told me that their own implementation of Watson has seen disruption mitigation time reduced from days down to hours – or even minutes in some cases – which is critical when you’re moving inventory in the millions of dollars.

“Watson is brand new every day.  Every time you go away, it grows and becomes more interesting, because it is constantly learning.  You come into the office and there will be a new API. Watson doesn’t take a day off, it is adding knowledge and features 24/7/365.”

Watson Supply Chain Program Director, Rob Allan.

2. Watson Supply Chain is helping save lives

… literally. One of the first user test cases for Watson is a global philanthropic organisation working to improve vaccine distribution in Kenya. Local African pharmacies battle constant low stock of critical medical supplies due to lack of inventory and poor visibility across the supply chain.

It is still early days, but the IBM team is really motivated and engaged with this important humanitarian project. I caught up with IBM Watson Supply Chain’s Program Director Rob Allan, who was energised after a recent visit to Kenya. “It’s great to be putting Watson to work on such a worthwhile project. In Africa, it’s not uncommon for a mother to walk half a day to get medicines, with no guarantee that she will be able to secure what she needs. Our program will deliver vaccines and supplies to more than 4,000 delivery points in Africa. This should make a huge difference to access much needed healthcare. We really hope we can make an impact.”

3. The proof is in the pudding.

 Leading companies, like Lenovo, have started mapping their thinking supply chain journey with Watson…but the biggest proof of concept is IBM itself who has been using Watson to manage its multi-billion dollar global supply chain for the last 18 months.

We all know that necessity is the mother of invention and this was certainly the case for the creation of this product. You may not know that it was actually IBM’s internal supply chain team that created Watson Supply Chain Insights.

If you listen to this webinar, you will learn that IBM’s VP Supply Chain at that time, Joanne Wright, had an “aha” moment back in 2011. A series of unthinkable events prompted Joanne to look for a solution. The Japanese Tsunami had wiped out components globally, volcanic eruptions in Iceland disrupted Nordic freight lines and floods in Thailand destroyed disc drive head production.

Joanne’s team struggled to get the right data and she dreamt of a day where she could get a smartphone alert prioritising supply chain failures, present the relevant data and even suggest solutions.

It wasn’t perfect at first. The team had to find and clean the data and learned that you must train Watson … that can’t be underestimated. They consulted the Watson Health cancer team and understood how to train Watson to talk supply chain.

It would seem that it was worth the effort, as it helped IBM’s Supply Chain save millions in inventory and freight costs, not to mention IBM reduced their supply chain data retrieval times by 75% using Watson – and helped build the technology that will drive supply chain into Industry 4.0.

4. It’s not a big a deal as you think!

From everything I have learned in the last 12 months, implementing Watson Supply Chain may not be as onerous as you think. In terms of time to implement, from London, Raleigh to Vegas I have asked numerous executives and they’re all convinced that they can overlay Watson on existing clients’ systems and have a meaningful dashboard up and running within a month.

5. Blockchain … coming soon.

Having been a Queen B2B in the late 90’s, I have long known the value of having common language and data for taking friction out of business transactions. That’s why I’m excited about blockchain. There’s certainly been a lot of hype, and, of course, the bitcoin currency part is totally out of control… but the idea of having a common ledger or “one version of the truth” for all B2B transactions, with the ability for business partners to get in and view the same information, is very appealing.

Watch this space! IBM previewed a new, blockchain-based offering called “Shared Ledgers” at Think.

Taking the plunge…

There’s definitely been a lot of hype about Watson, but there are some real reasons to start your thinking supply chain journey, powered by AI.

In explaining why Lenovo took the plunge with Watson, Bobby Bernard said, “This space is evolving quickly.  We want to be an influencer about these new supply chain technologies.”

With most technology introductions, most organisations have been able to wait out the early adopters and jump on-board when the technology is mature and in widespread use.

But IBM is warning that this is not the case with AI. According to Watson Customer Engagement GM, Richard Hearn, “Everyday you’re not using AI is another day your competitor or upstart might be leveraging AI to learn, adapt and disrupt your market and you!”

Procurious Founder Tania Seary is an IBM Watson Customer Engagement Futurist and attended #think2018 as an #IBMPartner.

5 SOFT SKILLS PROCUREMENT PROS SHOULD BE DEVELOPING…NOW!

If you want to hold on to your procurement career  in the long term, you ought to be worrying about mastering your soft skills!

We got wind of the fact that IBM, arguably the world’s most robotically advanced procurement team,  is focussing on its employees’ soft skills.

As Justin Mcbryan, Learning & Development, Strategy, Communications Manager- IBM, explained,  why would IBM need a high volume of data scientists in their midst when they have Watson!?

Technological advancements will soon permit the automation of our processes; handling the sourcing and the market intelligence. In this environment, it’s the softer skills procurement professionals must master to ensure a long-term career.  That’s the real skills gap procurement should be worried about!

In this blog we outline the specific skills procurement pros should be mastering to prepare for the post-cognitive age, with the help of Justin and John Viner Smith, Principal-Mercer.

1. Design Thinking

There are some “incredible and transformative technologies that offer solutions to problems that were unimaginable just a few years ago ,but they’re just half of the puzzle.” begins John.

“Subject matter experts will have a role to play in framing  [these problems] in the most efficient way.”  It’s important that the solutions aren’t simply “sticking plasters but fundamental root cause fixes”.

This is a role for procurement’s best and brightest, and the skill needed to fulfil this role is Design Thinking; “the process of being at the forefront of bringing new technologies to bear on business problems.”

2. Thinking at the speed of digital!

Joh asserted that procurement must recognise that “thinking of digital solutions requires some understanding of new processes and ways of thinking.”

“Procurement people should be learning about methodologies like Google’s Design Sprint or Eric Ries’ concept of Intrapreneurship as defined in the Lean Startup that are used in other types of digital business.

“Too often procurement thinking is slow, bound in process and incredibly risk averse. Technology problem solving is experimental, iterative and views failures as key to learning. The idea of developing hypotheses, testing them, failing fast and iterating or pivoting in the course of a week, as per Google’s Sprint methods, would be alien to many Procurement people.”

Procurement has worked at a certain pace,  thus far. And it’s going to  have to get faster!

3. Active questioning and listening

This wouldn’t be a piece about soft skills without a mention of communication! We already know how important this skill is for procurement people but it’s going to be all the more valuable in a post-cognivite age.

Justin reminded us that communication is vital for everything “from presentation skills to phone etiquette and how to ask probing questions to your suppliers.”

In a post cognitive world you’re “going to become more of an owner and less of a process facilitator” asserts Justin, which is where active listening comes in.

When it comes to managing negotiations with suppliers, clients and colleagues, “We all have scripts e.g. How many widgets do you need, when do you need them by etc.”

“Every now  and then, you’ll have  been in a situation where a client has given a little bit more than you asked for. This is where the active [and critical] listening comes in.” How do you use that information to do the best job possible?

4. Negotiation

“We rely on the threat of competitive pressure to do our negotiating for us” says John.

“We source the spec and don’t always listen to challenges from Suppliers. When we’re engaging them to help solve complex problems, we will need to be more commercially empowered and highly skilled negotiators; able to get the best from our suppliers by offering the best of ourselves while optimising value.”

5. Imagination

“The future role of procurement can be solved in one phrase: problem solving” says John.

But procurement’s problem solving needs to take on a more innovative and imaginative approach.

“Not every situation is going to call for an RFX” explains Justin. “That speaks directly to the change we’re looking for [at IBM].” Too often “we see a need and our reaction from a process point is let’s go and do the RFX.”  Instead professionals “should take a deep breath and start understanding the client and exactly what they need,” and approach the problem in alternate ways.

John concedes, arguing that “running tender might be the solution (increasingly rarely!) but collaborative innovation with the suppliers we have is important.”

Procurement peoples’ jobs will largely focus on bringing innovation to the supply chain in the first place and really helping the business to understand their demand.

In short, Procurement needs to have a relationship with the organisation that is much more strategic and puts the function in a partnering and consultative role.  As Justin sums up, ‘ [at IBM] We’re still looking for the procurement experts, we’re still looking for people who can do the job. But we’re adding to the soft skills portfolio.”

This blog was first published in October 2017. 

Taking The Heat Out Of The Resolution Room

If you can’t take the heat get out of the resolution room! Or invite Watson! 

We’ve all been there. Something’s gone terribly wrong with a major customer delivery. Emails are flying around and there are rumours from HQ that “heads are going to roll”.  Everyone concerned has been summoned to “THE meeting” in order to resolve the supply chain issue.

We know what happens next; fists slamming, red faces, an embarrassing lack of data and a lot of verbal ping, pong. Eventually, a resolution is found.

But what happens when Watson is in the resolution room? Could this take the heat out of your supply chain disputes?

 What is a Resolution Room?

A Resolution Room provides the organisation the ability to collaborate quickly to resolve supply disruptions. Users can discuss and resolve issues with other colleagues, business partners, or their suppliers. What distinguishes Resolution Rooms from all other collaboration platforms is Watson.

What does it mean to have Watson in the resolution room?

The big benefit of Watson being in the resolution room is that it recommends experts, provides insight from all data and actionable advice based on learned best practices.  Over time, it leverages Watson’s capability to develop a body of knowledge by learning how issues were best addressed in the past.  This enables greater speed and accuracy in responding to future events.

“Watson provides the opportunity to deliver business value and insights from all of these data insights – structured and unstructured, data from weather patterns, news, D&B and supplier IQ,” explains Joanne Wright, Chief Supply Chain Officer, IBM.

“It does this with speed and accuracy. No more are we saying ‘OK…let’s get the data and meet again tomorrow’ because Watson takes my team’s input and incorporates that into the next iteration as we go.”

Watson In The Resolution Room: A Case Study

IBM Watson is always a room participant, so you can draw on Watson’s expertise using natural language to ask a question, for example: @Watson what is the status of order ABC123?

Imagine the following scenario; A Late Shipment alert in the Ops Center reveals that orders of your most popular drone are in jeopardy because the shortage of the entire supply of a critical part, a lithium battery, has been delayed. You create a Resolution Room to manage the incident collectively.

Watson is in the room.

Whilst your team discusses how best to manage the problem you have the ease of asking Watson questions such as:

  • Which customer has the most sales dollars that will be late?
  • What are the financial impacts of any late orders?
  • Have we experienced this problem before? Who are the experts who have worked on these similar issues in the past?
  • Are there any alternate suppliers for part number 46001?
  • Why is there a shortage of lithium batteries?

Watson can provide answers to questions such as these based on the data available in the data model and in other Resolution Rooms. Learning over time, it becomes smarter and able to provide better insights about your supply chain.

Click here to try a Resolution Room demo. 

Got a big idea you want to push through a big company or simply want to learn more about Watson and the Resolution Room?

Sign up for next week’s procurement webinar, How IBM Built the Cognitive Supply Chain of the Future. hosted by Tania Seary and featuring IBM’s Chief Supply Chain Officer Joanne Wright.