“Ideas” and “Things”

I began my career in the nonprofit world and, over the past few years, have been making a transition to the for-profit world.  I have experienced the transition as a move from an “idea-orientation” to a “thing-orientation.”  By that I mean that the ultimate rationale for my employment appeared to me, as a teacher and as an education researcher, to be the value I could add to people’s lives.  In the business world, it is clear that I will be held accountable for the financial value delivered, which ultimately is measured in the profit on products sold.

There are many, many nuances that could be explored here: Education does create economic value; ideas, conversely, do change the way businesses operate.  Many educators and academic researchers are measured very rigorously and feel that an “idea-orientation” becomes an unaffordable luxury; when working in a large business that produces products, conversely, many positions have very little to do with actual production and cannot be easily measured against profit/loss expectations.  And so on.

These nuances interest me but the contrast between the two different approaches I have experienced interests me more:  “Idea-orientation” is about the pleasure of deep thought, and the excitement of discovery.  “Thing-orientation” is about the humility of checking one’s aspirations against measurable results and the challenge of identifying humanizing opportunities in the midst of the swirl of externally-focused activity.

“Idea-orientation” and “thing-orientation” derive from the historical-philosophical debate between idealism and materialism.  There are real-world consequences to this debate, in the world of high-tech business today.

Ideas and Things, in the Digital Age

It’s challenging to disentangle things from ideas at all times, and the last couple of decades have provided no shortage of examples.  The development of web giants, such as Google, have helped make popular the argument that ideas are more important than things or, as is related, that electrons have come to predominate in the economy, as opposed to atoms.  The connection is that electrons, via the web, chiefly transport ideas, and do not transport traditional products.  As we interact less with products before making a purchasing decision, and more with reviews/advertisements/search results, the thought process involved in economic interactions becomes more pronounced in the mental image of the buying process.

Some of the fascination with the electron economy may be waning, as we become more familiar/comfortable with these new buying processes.  At the same time, new economic developments may serve to remind us that “things” still matter, even in a world of rapidly expanding data, enabled by the web.  For one, a company like Amazon can make moves to not only sell virtually every consumer product, but can begin to influence the way that companies buy products.  Deeper economic processes can be, yes, made to yield before the power of the web; but the control of physical product still has power, and the greater interaction with digital images and crowd-sourced reviews, do not entirely erode that power.  The future growth of 3-D printing, and crowd-sourced design, could very well make the relative predominance of things or ideas appear even fuzzier.

Supply Chain Management

I am planning to speak at a Supply Chain Management conference next week.  Supply chain management concerns itself with the entire process of moving services and products across time and space in order to optimize product manufacture, delivery, and the resultant customer satisfaction.  In many ways, it is a very “thing-oriented” field.  It provides satisfaction to those who would like to know that their efforts impact the course of tangible objects.  Studying this field in business school was, for me, a very grounding endeavor.  It helped me to focus on the aspect of business/organizational life that was my weak point, and to accordingly call into question some of my fuzzier, abstract notions.

Not surprisingly, however, I have ended up in marketing and business intelligence, both of which are a few steps removed from physical products.  Those two roles depend, to varying degrees, on qualitative and quantitative abstraction.  Conjecture is not as easily testable in these roles as it is in say, logistics or product design.  It is not as easy to draw a line from a decision to a result.

When I speak at this upcoming conference, I will have to contend with the fact that I do not actually work in the field of supply chain management.  I was invited because of my ties to organizations involved in the field (generated during business school) and because I am a pretty good public speaker.  My connections to this thing-oriented field are founded in relationships and words, which are both idea-oriented entities.  Those who know me would not find that fact surprising.

As I prepare to speak, and as I speak, I will be confronted with the choice of whether to present myself as an ideas-man who appreciates the impact a thing-oriented field has had on my thinking or whether to present myself as a thing-man who happens to have a few ideas on the side.  The second stance is more difficult for me to conjure but the first stance risks being too abstract to appeal to the audience.  Fortunately and unfortunately, the choice fascinates me.

Supply Chain Management in the Future

I’ve been asked to speak at a global supply chain management conference about the intersection between the field and marketing.  I’m interested in stress-testing some relevant big ideas and new trends that inspire me.  I would later boil these down into a manageable talk..

First, some of the big ideas:
1) I have an abiding interest in what is now being popularized as “Big Data.”  Namely, the rapidly growing amount of stored/accessed data that is the topic of almost all of my blog posts over the past few years.  What excites me about the topic is that the way people think and organize themselves is dramatically impacted by the type of information that they have available, and how they find that information.
2) Materials allocation is a central social activity.  Supply Chain Management is one of the key fields where information distribution and materials allocation intersect.  This makes it an area of rich interest for looking at how technical changes will affect social development.
Here are some new trends that interest me:
1) Open Source Manufacturing: I’ve been very excited to come across Open Source Ecology, which promises the creation of “a single burned DVD [that] is effectively a civilization starter kit
2) Distributed Manufacturing: Efforts, such as those above, and others, such as WikispeedShapeoko and MakerBot, promise the possibility of the eventual distribution of manufacturing, due to a decreased initial investment threshold and an increased efficacy of individual/small group planning (by means of computing power).
3) Supply Chain Analytics: One excellent writer, Lora Cecere (“The Supply Chain Shaman“) provides a perspective at how “Big Data” can revolutionize business/tecnnical innovation/distribution, by means of supply chain innovation (You can read her general comments on Big Data beneath the “Trends . . .” heading on this page or find more specialized comments here.).
My goal will be to explain how the potential for the decentralization of manufacture, while far from being realized, highlights the direction in which the Information Age is pushing the fields of distribution and logistics: towards more rapid development cycles and, flowing from that, towards a closer understanding of market forces.
I’m interested in your thoughts on these trends/topics.
Thanks so much!

Open Source Hardware

Have you ever heard of ‘open source hardware’? This video provides a great overview of an effort to re-create basic machines (e.g. tractors) so that they are cheaper, modular, and more easily assembled in distributed sites (i.e. outside of traditional factories). The designs are shared across the internet, of course. It was exciting to see a concrete example of how the ‘electron economy’ is changing the ‘atom-based economy.’ We should keep our eyes open for many more such examples in the years ahead.

Information-sharing for Social Responsibility in the Electronic Industry: Collaboration in a Competitive Environment

I just heard a talk by someone involved in the Electronic Industry Citizenship Corporation (EICC; detailed project information can be found here), which seeks to develop common standards for corporate citizenship across the electronic industry.  What I found most fascinating were the elaborate procedures for the sharing of supplier audit information across the company-members of the EICC.

Essentially, one EICC member can gain access to a supplier audit commissioned by another EICC member or, alternatively, several EICC members can work share costs for the audit of a supplier that interests all of them.  All of this is done without disclosing the identities of the companies awaiting the audit results.  At the same time, costs are shared and common standards are actualized.

A great deal of legal care is necessary to administer this form of cooperation in an industry that is otherwise, quite naturally, rather competitive, and that needs to avoid (a) the bleeding of competitive advantage through leaked IP and (b) even the appearance of improper collaboration across companies.

Social conscientiousness in a competitive environment requires this sort of thoughtful and intricate approach; competitive pressures and a concern with reducing public relations risk, at the same time, force companies to develop predictable standards across an industry.

The Cloud in the Supply Chain, the Supply Chain in the Cloud

I’ve written in the past about how the cloud is changing the way that supply chain organizations work.  (see here and here).  It’s also interesting to consider how the traditional supply chain issues affect the way that the cloud itself is organized.  A recent post on the Amazon Web Services blog implicitly discusses, for instance, the classic trade-off between distribution center centralization and lead times (the time it takes for a product to be delivered):

“Developers in Japan have (said) that latency [basically, travel-time] and in-country data storage are of great importance to them,” Amazon Web Services said on [its] blog. “Long story short, we’ve just opened up an AWS Region in Japan, Tokyo to be precise.” [brackets mine; quote pulled from this discussion at NetworkWorld]

Specifically, the article is about the movement of data storage capacity to sites closer to customers.  That shouldn’t be surprising but it might remind casual observers (and hoity-toity theoreticians) about the relevance of old operational logistics paradigms to the new cloud.

Supply Chain Integration and Information Consolidation

I just heard a talk about the work of Brighton Cromwell, which describes itself as a “supply chain integrator” for the defense industry.  Essentially, they manage a large database of suppliers and military-generated proposal requests which allows them to (They actually collect information on all government RFP’s, in automated fashion.):

1) match military requests to suppliers in an automated fashion

2) create ‘kits’ of aggregated supplies to meet specific military needs

3) allow subscribing purchasers to find suppliers through a specialized search engine

What intrigues me about this model is (1) that Brighton Cromwell is able to create a market niche for itself, in part, by specializing in information management and that (2) the potential uses of their database, generated for immediate business purposes, is a marketable asset of great value.

Crowd-Sourcing Your Supply Chain?

One of my major contentions about the ‘Information Age’ is that it, in certain cases, shifts the balance between proprietary control and crowd participation: Connecting more and more people in intensifying interactions across great distances cannot but create such new opportunities.

My current studies focus on Supply Chain Management and I am therefore curious to find opportunities for ‘crowd-sourcing’ some basic business functions involved in the fields of procurement, sourcing, logistics, etc.

My supposition is that there must exist some areas of these fields which are ripe for revolutionary crowd-sourcing activity.  I’d like to share a few questions/thoughts with the hope of provoking conversation about where, specifically, such opportunities might be found:

+What if a large company presented a supply chain problem to the general public (or, perhaps, to lightly vetted, interested persons) and offered a reward, a commission, or perhaps, nothing other than recognition, to those who could put together the pieces of a supply chain strategy that would save money?

+Could such a problem be presented as a game, such as Foldit, which presents scientific problems in a gaming format?

+Clearly, a rich database of potential suppliers would have to be developed to make this problem tractable.

+Such an idea would likely have to be implemented in a very simple, relatively risk-free setting, at first, in order to understand some of the risks.

Feel free to call me crazy; but please check back in with me in twenty years before you finalize your conclusion.