February 1, 2005
Column | big picture

2020 visions?

With all the visionaries out there foretelling a future when businesses (and nations) collaborate in a seamless, well-oiled supply chain, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Center for Transportation and Logistics have injected a badly needed dose of reality into the fantasy.

By Peter Bradley

Leave it to the guys from MIT to puncture the myth. With all the visionaries out there foretelling a future when businesses (and nations) collaborate in a seamless, well-oiled supply chain—when the scanning of a box of Cheerios at the grocer's checkout counter reverberates all the way back through the supply chain to the farmer who grows the oats—researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Center for Transportation and Logistics have injected a badly needed dose of reality into the fantasy.

As part of MIT's Supply Chain 2020 Project, Mahendar Singh and his colleagues recently reviewed 46 books, articles, white papers and studies on the future of supply chains. And according to their paper, A Review of the Leading Opinions on the Future of Supply Chains, the predictions tend to be variations on a theme. Our review indicates that most of the publications support the vision of a highly connected world in which supply chains' links will be extremely fluid and transient, Singh writes. In this vision, activities across the supply chains are triggered by signals from end customers, supported by systems that will run efficiently, and facilitated by innovative production, communication, and information technologies.

Sounds good, doesn't it? But Singh's not convinced it will happen. We have strong reservations about the level of supply chain collaboration and flexibility achieved in the year 2020, he writes. In the end, Singh and his team conclude that we shouldn't hold our collective breath. "[I]t is our opinion that the vision of a Totally Enabled Supply Chain is utopian," he writes, "and not likely to unfold in the predicted manner—at least not by the year 2020."

But that's not to suggest that the researchers consider forecasting to be a waste of time. Instead, they contend, it's what sort of forecasting you do that matters. "[W]e maintain that the best approach to such foretelling is scenario planning," Singh asserts. "Scenario planning, an approach to forecasting developed by Shell, has at its core an acknowledgment that the future is uncertain. Options and flexibility are built in."

I think there's a nice parallel there—an approach to uncertainty developed by a company that historically relies on its geologists' best estimates of what lies deep underground. That may not be a bad metaphor (Singh compares scenario planning to sensors in the ground): You can't tell what lies buried (or lies ahead), but the deeper you dig, the more you'll understand.

About the Author

Peter Bradley
Editorial Director
Peter Bradley is an award-winning career journalist with more than three decades of experience in both newspapers and national business magazines. His credentials include seven years as the transportation and supply chain editor at Purchasing Magazine and six years as the chief editor of Logistics Management.

More articles by Peter Bradley

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