Trends, Threats and Opportunities


We are rapidly approaching the 3rd decade in the 21st century. Is the singularity upon us? Autonomous robots and sensors. AI/analytics and IoT. What will these technologies along with the huge shift in worldwide population portend for our future? Will it be a world of insecurities and shortage or innovation and abundance?


After more than twenty years of software development directed at enterprise financial and integration concerns, our technology focus is becoming more diverse, interesting and probably a bit more frightening than ever. Social, government and technology innovations have been arising from so many diverse areas that the software and hardware industry, in case you did not notice, has been going through major changes. These changes are affecting and will continue to affect the enterprise and supply chains in ways we may not even discern yet.

Let’s look at some of these major trends and glean a little of how they are — and will — shake out in the next few years.

My Digital Universe — Convenience or Surveillance?

Today our homes are being transformed within and surrounded by a myriad of digital and sensor technologies: from robots to clean your home, to monitors for your heat and cooling systems or your baby. Servants — digital assistants — discretely listen to your life and cater to your needs, from music, shopping, and more.1

All these devices are listening, collecting data, and also integrating with other applications and companies that have other types of data about you. This is especially true with Google, that essentially makes it’s money from enterprise references — “sharing” information about consumers

As people get more used to talking to, living with, and relying on digital assistants and robots, it will have a greater impact on life as we know it. “Zembo, please wash the floor.” “Pepper, please make me a cup of coffee!“ (My preferred assistants (human butlers) are displayed below).

Whether because of security concerns, the physicality of our lives (weight gain, lack of mobility) or our ability to have rewarding relationships with other humans,2 all will be affected. Why struggle trying to get the right girl or guy? Feeling lonely after a messy divorce? Just get a humanoid, instead.

Within our lives, automation has been a boon, catalyzing and establishing the industrial revolution. It was a real breakthrough from the drudgery of some very hard work. Think about washing all the family linens by hand, cooking over a hearth, pumping your own water, and no central heating. The 20th century brought real enjoyment to caring for the home.

This 21st digital century may make things more convenient, but a lot more complex. So is it better? Do we need every whim? Can’t we walk the aisles of a grocery store? One friend reports to me she does 10,000 steps twice a week, just taking care of the family shopping and errands (Costco, Home Depot, etc. are mighty big).

It is true that a smart home can be a very important aid to many. Many of those who are limited in physical capacity (the elderly or sick) have home monitors, and these systems are becoming even more encompassing. And having an effective security system that protects one from home evasion is truly valuable.

But also, history has shown that, as we assumed a more frequent position on the couch in front of the TV, home architecture changed. We used to cook in a kitchen, eat in a dining area, get up and move to the TV or den and play in a backyard.

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Now the eating and TV area is in one extended room and backyards are smaller. The result is that we have reduced our steps, house cleaning and maintenance, and play. And the impact has been unhealthy for our society. We can witness these changes across the world as developed nations join the automated society.

Supply Chain Impact:

Customer expectations are for instant availability. That includes responsive multi-party web information systems connected to suppliers and logistics providers. Retailers must catalogue an infinite array of their own and their suppliers’ inventory, and offer a rich assortment of delivery options from same-day, free, time-definite delivery or click and collect. Supply chains need real-time multi-party connectivity, better inventory policies, increased focus on logistics methods that support availability, and investments in transportation. Inventory management is no longer just about lean. It is where and when the customer wants it (which is usually now). Hence, businesses need much better demand planning techniques to determine not just how much inventory to stock, but where to stock.

As we assume an even smaller place in managing our own lives, relying instead on our smart devices and leaving the management to our digital assistants, our world becomes smaller. Yet the tech world is getting bigger and more autonomous as it assumes a greater role in managing our lives and our companies.


There are many forces that are driving us ever so closer to those drones and driverless vehicles. In my youth we could not wait to get ‘our wheels’: freedom to drive — even if it was just to the local pizza hangout with the other kids. Now millennials are driving and owning cars at a much later date, relying on other forms of transportation (that might be good for green if it is public) or not going at all.

In addition, with our online/home-delivery lifestyle, the unfulfilled demand for drivers is at an all-time high. Even at $70k a year it can be hard to recruit. Honestly, this week in the north with below zero temperatures, I do feel less eager to go out (and am feeling sorry for those delivery folks who might not want to be out there, either). And of course, this kind of automaton — robots and autonomous — will change the work landscape. (Read Workers Wanted- Or Not?)

Supply Chain Impact: Though the thought of drones overhead and driverless vehicles makes me a bit nervous, it does look like we are mile by mile heading towards great acceptance of these approaches. Certainly supply chain technologies in the transportation world are preparing for these potentials as vehicles become smarter and more connected.

Of course, logistics companies can do more to attract workers. Automation does not have to replace. For example, using mechanical lifts and such in the warehouse and for loading trucks, smarter dollies and small robots to aid in picking, loading, and unloading can reduce the taxing of the back and body. The warehouse environment can be improved with better lighting, noise reduction, and increased security and safety. Workers should not have to fear they will be recruited into theft rings or injured on the job. The industry can do a lot to improve its reputation on these fronts3 and recruit loyal and enthusiastic workers.

Millennial Complexity — Sensors everywhere

As Peter Lucas, author of Trillions stated, “We are entering an era of unbounded millennial complexity.” He was predicting the trillions of devices, sensors and microprocessors that will be on every person and thing, effectively turning people and their on-body devices into a trillion-node web, what to say of all the stuff we have at home and interact with at work and in public. Supporting this infinite digitally connected world requires rethinking our business models, the products we develop, and how we use information.

IoT is a presence and will increase since the inventiveness is this arena is unbounded.4 Sensors are surely an aid to many in both work and home life. We are still in the early stages of where this will go, yet IoT is already becoming ubiquitous. The challenge is what to do with all that data.5 And the risk is how will we remain secure?

Supply Chain Impact: Analytics is a growing field that requires senior technical, yet business savvy professionals. There is, of course, a vast business intelligence market that provides data, tools and rules. But that is not for everyone — with our already-filled daily schedules. So more directed, functional analytics for users is required. Analytics is not just for businesses, as consumers are already used to using analytics in applications such as investment and retirement planning, monitoring their health and sports performance, calorie and nutrition counting, and so much more. Depending on your product, analytics also need to be embedded in products.

We are seeing more applications firms invest in more directed analytics. (See Logility’s recent acquisition as an example.)

Cyber and Physical Security

Underlying all this discussion is our on-going concerns with security. It seems that every day there is a breach of some kind. As hacking gets a romanticized make-over6 and has huge government backing and protection,7 it continues to grow. It seems, in spite of all the threats, that businesses are still under-invested in this area, leaving so much of the responsibility on the customers and users.

Security professionals have been warning that consumer products such as home devices, automobiles, our online banking and other payment methods, and so on that are connected to the internet are under threat.8 And as we become more ‘singular’9 these threats can become more dangerous.

Be assured, although hacking the election gets all the press, it’s all about the money! Trade secrets are most interesting to competitive foreign enterprises as well as governments who wanted or want a quick way up into the 21st century.

Supply Chain Impact: Though you may have great security on your own servers (even that turns out to be questionable), your suppliers and partners may be very vulnerable. Over the last few decades, more types of functions are now done by third parties. This includes IT, payroll, HR, facilities management, security, R&D, legal, accounting, sourcing and procurement, beyond the traditional customer service, logistics, and manufacturing functions. The drive to lower costs and higher margins makes this an unstoppable trend. But along with it, the risk has increased for many corporations as visibility and control have decreased. Few purchasers of outsourced services conduct and maintain vigilance over their partners’ infrastructure, technology, and employee trustworthiness. Supplier risk strategies are paramount.

Millennial Rules — Changing Work Climate

Face facts. Baby boomers are on the way out. Millennials are on the way up. (In the working world, that is.) Psychologists and scientists recognize that some of the most innovative work and new ideas come from those younger than 40. Einstein created his Annus Mirabilis papers10 in the years1902-1909 which made him about 26 when he developed his theory of special relativity. General relativity was published in 1916 making him about 37. Two years later he received the noble prize. And we know all about Gates, Jobs, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg, and so many more. It seems that a rebellious streak may add to the energy to create.

So a new generation of entrepreneurial innovation needs to be sought out (not rejected by entrenched management) in order to stay fresh and be relevant to at least half the existing current commercial marketplace (see side bar). Many of these people will be, are, or should be your employees. They bring a fresh and much needed perspective on the world, products, their jobs, and how things should be done today.

The new employees are action oriented, mobile, social, and analytical. However, they are not necessary good with administrative tasks. They recoil at paper. They never heard of EDI. Making time and grade will not appeal as a career path, since, as they have learned from us, they might just get laid-off before the big prizes get doled out. There won’t be a retirement or rich benefit packages plan so better go get that for yourself, if you can.

Supply Chain Impact:

We must recruit and provide a thriving environment for the new generation. New ideas on retention should be considered. Statistics indicate that there is a five-year gestation period to train a college graduate to become a supply chain operative — in production, demand planning, or some other capacity. That’s too long. That time can be best utilized by immersing them in the rough and tumble of the business — not burying them in paper and outdated technology.

Companies need to invest in their employees too, with training and exposure to peer and industry ideas at conferences and other gatherings where ideas are shared. Leaders, too, need to provide mentoring and opportunity. I have seen too many important ideas and morale crushed by managers with limited scope, turf-protectors, with low risk-taking mindsets.

Conclusions — Explicit vs. Implicit Demand

In our connected and analytical world, the enterprise needs an immediate and accurate response. This is an always-on world that needs always-on business, whether it is 24-hour call centers, product availability, home services or installation, or the myriad of service transactions. E-health with remote diagnostics, patient consultations over Skype, or robot-assisted surgeries is becoming the norm. Even governments, usually slow on spotting trends, have implemented many on-line digital approaches, from customs clearance to setting up social security retirement payments. Educational institutions now have online as a standard offering. Even in our main highways such as I-90 (in my state, the Mass Pike), the incentive is to be connected since the conversion of the highway to transponder-based.11

Explicitly, demand flows through our systems from collaborative plans, point-of-sale, and now, voice recognition to our digital assistants. But with sensors and analytics, demand can be implicit. Think about home health monitoring. This industry is already sensing what is going on and if you fall or your heart flutters, help is on the way, without you verbalizing it, since you might not be able to speak. Already, retailers’ analytic systems want to order and re-order for you without your explicit request.

This connected world is smart, real-time, and is calling your supply chain! From the factory floor, call centers, distribution centers, and fulfillment to the front-line workers, the home — delivery, healthcare and on-site services, you have to be ready.

This all represents different work — a new generation of developers, new business models, and a redistribution of work. New methods and technologies are increasingly being adopted across different industry and technology sectors.

Networks of small businesses from trucking to home services will represent a growing portion of the economy, since they are local and the big manufacturers just don’t have the responsiveness and reach to service unpredictable and diverse end-points.12 Many professionals have the entrepreneurial zeal to build something important on their own. If your workplace is a nest of political infighting, a place of harassment (as we have seen of late all the exposés in the news) or just lacks energy to create, these talented people can go elsewhere. They do, and they often create their own rewarding business ventures sans corporate politics.

Many of the trends mentioned here are already in play, but not necessarily mainstream in the everyday thinking. But that is changing. If we want to stay relevant in the next decade — a mere two years away — we must be open to change and become astute listeners and exceptional implementers.

In addition, we are confronting huge environmental and societal issues, and these will only grow in urgency. A growing population, major changes in the nature of work, huge population issues due to world and local conflicts and so on, require some big thinking and visionary leadership from our institutions and businesses. We can look at these conditions and trends as many threats, or begin seeing them as opportunities — some solutions — that can sustain and enhance the world we want to live in.


1 Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft and Samsung are major players with a plethora of home surveillance players. — Return to article text above
2 Beyond home cleaning and companionship, you can read between the lines on the meaning there. Also, see Robot Love for some insights into the human need for affection and can/when will robots fill that need. — Return to article text above
3 What to say of improving pay and providing benefits! — Return to article text above
4 Read Spectrum of IoT PlatformsReturn to article text above
5 Read Revolutionizing LogisticsReturn to article text above
6 Mr. Robot series is a totally romanticized, engrossing view into a hacker’s mind. — Return to article text above
7 Read The Russians are Coming, and POLITICO: Trump talks tough on China’s hacking. Why not Russia’s?Return to article text above
8 “This threat was made plain last fall when Mirai malware was used to hijack internet-facing webcams and other devices into massive botnets that were then used to launch a coordinated assault against Dyn, one of several companies hosting the Domain Name System (DNS). That attack crippled such major sites as Twitter, PayPal, Netflix and Reddit.” Source Naked Security.Return to article text above
9 with sensors either embedded, appliances we wear or other devices we carry and rely on. Read Technological singularityReturn to article text above
10 Read: special relativity and general relativity. — Return to article text above
11 Across the country in Virginia, Illinoise, Pennsylvania and New York are examples of people and toll booth being elimated, and/or you get fast lane access only with transponders. — Return to article text above
12 Not all service jobs, as some declare, will be hamburger flippers, but meaningful and high-paying jobs. — Return to article text above

To view other articles from this issue of the brief, click here.

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