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Why Has the Man vs. Machine Debate no Place in 3PL?

By Craig Conway, CTO, Livingston International

Craig Conway, CTO, Livingston International

There’s an ongoing debate in the world of technology about the ideal balance between man and machine. Most of us in the IT world, believe that our pursuit of technological advancement results in a net positive outcome for the industries and consumers we service. One need not look far to see the widespread benefits of technology in medicine, communication, transportation, and many other aspects of our society and economy.

Others argue that reliance on technology removes a critical human element from our daily lives and business practices, leaving us all a little less engaged in our communities, workplaces, and families.

"Even as technology serves as a convenient interface for routine transactions, it also performs the role of research assistant to the humans who identify, navigate, and mitigate risks on behalf of clients"

The reality likely lies somewhere in between these two viewpoints.

The truth is that many industries rely on the human element to be functional. The nature of their business is such that change is endemic and technology cannot always adapt to progress in a nimble manner.

We’re only halfway through this year and already profound changes are occurring in the world of global trade. The North American Free Trade Agreement is set to be re-negotiated. Canada just signed a new trade deal with Europe. The United States pulled out of a multilateral agreement involving predominantly Asian economies. Meanwhile, new agreements are being negotiated among nations in Asia.

3PL has always been an industry of perpetual change driven by technological advancement. We have invested heavily in research and development to streamline processes, reduce costs, and provide better service to our partners and clients. Improvements in communications technology, data analytics, robotics and automation, and systems integration have all played critical roles in achieving these ends.

These investments in technology have changed and will continue to change not only the nature of how we do things, but the people on whom we rely so critically. With each passing year, there is a greater reliance on individuals with hard technical skills who can design and employ algorithms, analyze reams of data, automate processes, and integrate systems. These are the people who are gradually shifting the nature of our business from one that is heavily reliant on manual processes to one that is increasingly automated. They relieve us of the burden of the routine and tedious so that we can channel our energy into value-added services and proactive counsel. In other words, we are moving from an industry of people supported by technology to an increasingly automated industry enhanced by people.

By no means are we unique in this regard. Many other industries have already gone through full-scale transitions toward automation, driven by companies looking to reduce costs, widen margins and be more competitive. However, unlike manufacturing, for example, our industry is a complex web of specialized organizations reliant on one another and that are in a constant state of evolution and adaptation to change—industrial, regulatory, legal, and technical.

This means the challenge for our industry is finding those individuals who can not only design and employ the technology, but who have sufficient understanding of our individual businesses and the broader supply chain and logistics industry so that they can effectively create technology that meets the needs of our industry and the businesses we service.

The changes our industry experiences on a regular basis are not the kind to which a software made to manage and monitor day-to-day activities can adapt quickly. Nor do these changes generate questions that can be answered with an algorithm.

That’s where the people come in—the subject matter experts who have deep-rooted expertise and who can offer perspective, diffuse tension, and ultimately serve as strategic partners to these businesses. It is these individuals the technology must support, not only to mitigate problems when they arise, but to offer proactive counsel on how these businesses can find cost savings, streamline processes and circumvent future challenges.

But we cannot plan for the unforeseeable and the unforeseeable is inevitable. That’s why the human factor will always play a pivotal role in 3PL and will work in tandem with technological tools to optimize the user experience and ultimately improve how we do business.

For users of technology, be they business owners, logistics managers, regulatory agency representatives or partners/ vendors, it means we have to be on time, all the time in real time and do so through an omni-channel experience to ensure we’re able to provide timely information in the user’s preferred format. Whether that channel is email, live chat, or a mobile app, there’s always a human being at the other end who facilitates and participates in that interaction.

It’s critical to emphasize those interactions cannot and should not be carried out passively. Indeed, the availability of data and data analytics allows us to identify and learn from past problems so that we are better able to address future ones. With that level of intelligence, we are able to approach each client communication with substantial preparation and thoughtfulness. This allows for sudden and exceptional circumstances to be tackled in an expeditious and yet informed manner.

In other words, even as technology serves as a convenient interface for routine transactions, it also performs the role of research assistant to the humans who identify, navigate and mitigate risks on behalf of clients. That’s precisely why debates about man vs. machine are simply obsolete in our industry. The pace and gravity of change has secured the role of people in 3PL and always will, even as the nature of work and the skill sets employed continue to evolve as we continue to advance toward new achievements such as machine learning and predictive analytics.

And yet the pace of change alone isn’t what drives demand for that human experience. Ultimately, we all need a name and face to turn to when we have a question, concern, or suggestion. We want to know that our thoughts are not falling into a data abyss fronting as a web form. And we want to know someone is accountable when things don’t go as planned.

It’s those people offering advice, resolving problems, answering questions, and being accountable that differentiate vendors from strategic partners, and it’s the technology that supports them that generates so much more added value.