In May I attended Gartner’s Supply Chain Executive Conference in Phoenix, Ariz. The conference sessions covered everything from software to sales and operations planning to supply chain strategy and much, much more. (I suspect I wasn’t the only one who wanted to clone myself in order to attend more sessions.) There were numerous opportunities to learn from Gartner analysts, technology providers, and supply chain leaders from a wide range of industries. And, of course, the event featured announcements of Gartner’s Top 25 Supply Chains list as well as their annual “Magic Quadrant” assessments of software and logistics service providers.
There were so many sessions, topics, demonstrations, and discussions packed into each day of the conference that it would be hard to identify a single, overarching message. But if I had to focus on just one, it would be this: to succeed in business now and in the future, you need to follow two distinct supply chain paths.
Gartner calls this principle the “bimodal supply chain.” Here—in very simplified terms—is how Chief of Research David A. Willis described it in his opening keynote. You can think of Mode 1 as analog and designed for stability, efficiency, and operational excellence. Mode 2 is digital and designed for agility and innovation—an approach supported by advanced analytics, automation, and connectivity. A company that follows both paths will be “industrialized and innovative, lean and effective but agile,” he said.
The digital side of the supply chain will encompass e-commerce, the Internet of Things, predictive analytics, “big data,” machine-to-machine communication, and demand sensing, among other things. Algorithms will rule the day, and data scientists, analysts, and information technologists will become an integral part of supply chain organizations, Willis predicted.
Does this mean the end of “old school” supply chain management? Definitely not. Willis emphasized that the digital and analog sides of supply chain operations are not in competition; rather, they are complementary and should work together. He cited the example of the home goods retailer Williams-Sonoma, which now derives half of its revenue from online business. The company had to devote considerable resources to adapting its supply chain and its information technology resources to serve that channel, but it did not sacrifice growth in its brick-and-mortar retail channel or disrupt its traditional operations.
The “bimodal supply chain” is catching on as a management strategy, becoming a guiding principle for companies like HP, Schneider Electric, and Discount Tire. Gartner, of course, has a vested interest in pushing the concept; the more companies buy into it, the more opportunities to sell its advisory services and research papers on the topic. But the bimodal supply chain is neither a gimmick nor an empty promise. In fact, it makes perfect sense for companies in almost every industry. Who could argue with a strategy that encourages supply chain organizations to prepare for the data-driven business of the future while reinforcing the value of good, old-fashioned operational excellence?