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Digital Transformation

The Future of the Supply Chain: A Human Focus

the human future of the supply chain

The human future of the supply chain is enmeshed with the future of absolutely everything else.

The supply chain seems abstract, right? In some ways it’s quite simple: it’s just a metaphor for the connected systems that move goods from point A to point B.

In other words, it’s the network of facilities, transportation systems, information systems and communication systems that are used to move goods from one place to another. It includes everything from raw materials to finished products.

But that… still doesn’t help much, does it?

That’s exactly why two of the guests on the most recent episode of The Tech Humanist Show chose discrete, tangible items to focus on their journey. In Arriving Today: From Factory to Front Door — Why Everything Has Changed About How and What We Buy, Wall Street Journal tech columnist Christopher Mims traces the path of a hypothetical phone charger from its origins in a factory in Vietnam through its shipping, distribution, transportation, and arrival at his front door. A.J. Jacobs takes a different approach, pondering the many people it takes to produce his morning cup of coffee, and then endeavoring to thank as many of them as possible — deciding, eventually, to cap the number at 1,000 recipients of his thanks: hence, the title of his book, Thanks a Thousand: A Gratitude Journey.

We also feature excerpts from my interview with Charlie Cole, the CEO of, and he talks, as an example, about the supply and distribution of roses.

Having specific items in mind as we picture the vastness of the supply chain — and the future of the supply chain, and more to the point, the human future of the supply chain — helps to make it less a little less mysterious and complex.

Keeping the people in mind

The real trick is picturing the people in the process. (For that reason, this episode makes a fine pairing with our recent episode on worker agency and the rising trend of labor movements.)

My business is very small but we work with some of the largest companies in the world, so now and then as I go through our clients’ onboarding process, the questions seem out of scale. One client’s intake forms asked about supply chain transparency and what policies my company has in place to ensure that we are sourcing ethically and ensuring no human trafficking in our suppliers.

At first it seems a bit absurd that I, running such a small business, would have something so elaborate as a process to ensure that my suppliers — which are mostly small businesses themselves — aren’t doing something so nefarious as human trafficking. But then the realization hits that I do have a process, albeit an informal one. I am asking questions when I take on suppliers; I’m just not always asking them out loud.

So ever since encountering those questions, I have been making a point of incrementally writing out my vetting process for suppliers so that as my business grows and perhaps someone else takes over this responsibility someday, they have a values-based starting point already articulated.

The future of the supply chain: more transformation to come

It’s got me thinking about a lot of things at once: the climate-ready transformation of the supply chain, the future of food, exponential change across multiple vectors, retail transformation, and more.

What’s perhaps most interesting is how much the supply chain stands to be transformed in the next decade or two. We’re already seeing it with the rise of electric vehicles and autonomous vehicles, but that’s just the beginning.

We’re also seeing a transformation in the way that goods are produced and distributed, with 3D printing and on-demand manufacturing becoming more prevalent.

What does all of this mean for the future of the supply chain? It means that we need to be prepared for a lot of change. And it also means that there are going to be opportunities for businesses to create new products and services that we can’t even imagine today.

In essence: it’s about those large scale systems driving small-scale experiences. It’s about reducing uncertainty amid complexity. It’s about the challenge for leaders to make decisions when their smallest decisions can play out with disproportionate impacts.

The future of the supply chain is about more than just logistics. It’s about how we’re going to produce and distribute goods and services in a way that’s sustainable, ethical, and meets the needs of a rapidly changing world.

The future of the supply chain is about how we’re going to produce and distribute goods and services in a way that’s sustainable, ethical, and meets the needs of a rapidly changing world.

Questions to guide your own supply chain strategy & insights

How can you make sure that your company is prepared for the future of the supply chain? Here are a few insight-driving questions to consider:

  • What is happening to the supply chain at the edge of the processes you control? Where does your product come from? Where does it go next? How can you better ensure that more of that process aligns with what you value and what you want your customers to experience?
  • What changes would you need to make to ensure that your company’s supply chain is as ethical and sustainable as possible?
  • How can you make your company’s supply chain more transparent? Would your customers appreciate this level of insight? How would it impact your bottom line?

These are just a few thought-starters. What’s important is to deepen the conversation within your organization, and make sure it includes the people in the process. By keeping the people in mind, and being prepared for change, you can ensure that your company is ready for whatever comes next.