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Successful digitalisation of global supply chain depends on people-related factors

FOR many companies, especially multinationals, supply chains are key drivers of efficiency, speed and agility, and, therefore, critical to long-term competitiveness. But while Industry 4.0-driven technologies - such as big data, the Internet of Things and artificial intelligence - will play an important role in enabling this strategic ambition, people will remain the most important asset and success driver.

Digitalisation has made it possible to connect the entire supply chain across the purchasing, production and logistics functions. On one hand, process standardisation and data harmonisation have created transparency on the vast amount of data on customers, products, plant operations, raw materials and logistics. On the other hand, smart technologies have significantly automated and modernised our work environment.

Take the example of the production floor, where it is possible now to have automated guided vehicle systems, such as self-driving forklifts, receive digital signals on inventory stock levels and pick up and transport products between locations. Sensors on the forklifts ensure they move at a safe distance from people and obstacles within their assigned area, and their batteries are charged through a floor-integrated system.

Increasingly, intelligent systems and machines will not only simplify processes, but also replace manual, monotonous tasks. At the same time, more people will have access to data analytics to generate insights, enhance collaboration and create greater value. Hence, we're seeing job profiles across the supply chain functions being redefined, leading to many exciting possibilities for our current and future workforce.

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In the offices and factories, managers can make informed decisions faster, while teams in different departments and around the world can collaborate and exchange knowledge and best practices more easily. Plant workers do more than operate machines; they can spend more time analysing data from their production processes and across various production sites to map performance in real time and optimise resource planning, production and logistics.

Meanwhile, new job positions - such as digital platform managers, heads of digital operations and data scientists - are created. Their responsibilities span from steering digital activities and building digital capabilities to driving Industry 4.0, data analytics and business process transformation projects.

As supply chain models become more digitised and integrated, new collaborative approaches will be required. Employees working in cross-functional and cross divisional teams will become the norm. The implementation of Industry 4.0 will involve building an ecosystem of established standards with large vendors as well as game-changing innovations with startups. There will be more collaboration at the industry level. A successful example is the chemical industry's "Together for Sustainability" initiative, where 20 leading companies, including Henkel, joined forces to set a sustainability benchmark for supplier evaluation, building a strong community of sustainable suppliers internationally.

Overall, job roles are becoming more strategic and different skillsets are emphasised. These include the abilities to collaborate in international, cross-functional and virtual teams as well as handle different topics - not only in supply chain, but also in business and digitally. Moreover, in a volatile and constantly changing environment, it is necessary to have an open, entrepreneurial and continuous learning mindset to manage ambiguous situations, anticipate changes and drive innovation.


While individuals must take ownership for their career development, it is in the interest of companies to help their employees and workers step up to new job requirements and expectations. For example, training, best-practice sharing, and industry networking opportunity are fundamentals to professional and digital upskilling. Other important aspects are a supportive corporate culture and workplace design. These, together with an open workspace concept, create a dynamic environment for collaboration and creative exchange.

According to recruitment specialist Ambition, businesses are shifting their supply chain functions, especially at the strategic level, to China and Singapore. It noted that businesses prefer to set up their supply chain and logistics hubs in locations with more advanced e-commerce ecosystems, such as Singapore and Shanghai, giving them access to a wider talent pool and better logistics-related support.

An optimised global supply chain, empowered by digital and advanced technologies, can lead to higher process standardisation, improved customer service levels, enhanced efficiency as well as greater sustainability. From our experience, this is a herculean task that involves thousands of people around the world. Success, therefore, depends on many people-related factors, such as having strong, passionate teams with the relevant expertise and right mindset; seamless collaboration with business partners, suppliers and promising startups; and joint programmes with leading universities to nurture the next generation of supply chain talent.

  • The writer is president of Henkel Singapore and managing director of Global Supply Chain Hub in Singapore.