Finding the weakest link
Things get even more interesting when we delve into the “trust” bucket because, though tech does play a part, there are also philosophical, ethical, and human perspectives to consider. As information and knowledge managers, we naturally understand why people need access to well-governed, accurate, and timely data and knowledge (information). But surrounding the creation, management, and dissemination of that information are often invisible rules and processes that pivot around our concepts of trust. A throwaway but catchy phrase we have used for years runs along the following lines of “the right information, at the right time, to the right person.” It’s a good phrase, but when we use the word “right,” we mean “correct.” We ask questions such as: Are there multiple versions? Is this the correct version? Is the information accurate? Has it been changed? To validate the answers to those questions, we rely on systems of trust and supervision.
Yet today, if you underpin your information management systems with a blockchain, everyone has the same version of the “truth,” so these questions become unnecessary. In effect, blockchains provide a trustless system; they remove the need to trust one another. That eliminates the need for multiple copies of a document and, notably, the need to regularly verify that this document (or data) is correct. It may also mean that some links can be removed altogether from our “chains.”
Accuracy through automation On parallel lines, all humans make mistakes such as misfiling a piece of information, incorrectly inputting data, or missing essential elements in longform documents. Technology is not perfect and it can never be error-free, but document capture and understanding technologies, such as optical character recognition (OCR) and natural language processing (NLP), today typically produce much lower error rates than humans. If the tech has any doubts, it can flag that for a user to verify. In short, we can often trust the correctness and quality of information captured by technology more than information processed by a human.
This may seem a stretch, and all technology can be misused or poorly implemented and maintained. But assuming the technology has been used well, it is typically much more accurate and relatively error-free. Hence, we can trust the technology to manage the bulk of our information assets, and maybe only check or supervise a tiny percentage. Similarly, an automation tool undertakes manual, repetitive tasks the same way every time, whereas quirky real-world humans will stray at times.
The scale of opportunity
So, back to the supply chain world of warehouses, containers, ships, trucks, refrigeration units, and barcodes. The supply chain has run remarkably well since time immemorial, but it only takes one weak link to impact the entire chain; for example, a mismatched invoice, an incomplete export document, or a missing bill of lading. For generations, trust and relationships have kept the wheels turning. Though that will always be part and parcel of good business, it’s now possible to eliminate many trust-based links, dramatically reduce human error, and move the onus of trust away from individuals and onto the system. The technology available today works well; the challenge for the supply chain, and indeed for us all, is to grasp the scale of the opportunity we have and to take some leaps of faith, reimagining ideal operating scenarios, whether in shipping crabmeat across an ocean or managing complex knowledge networks.
Supply chain professionals are finding this shift hard to deal with, but the intense pressures of the past couple of years motivate them to move forward. I hope that the lessons they learn and share as they transform will, in coming years, be valued and used by us all to reimagine, reinvent, and revitalize information management and knowledge management practices and strengthen or even eliminate our weakest links.