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“WAT THE?” 5 THINGS I LEARNT ABOUT WATSON SUPPLY CHAIN IN VEGAS

Rather than adopting the “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” mantra, I wanted to share some new insights into Watson that I gleaned at IBM’s mega thought leadership event – Think 2018.

1. Watson needs education – but it’s a fast learner!

When you think of Watson, you probably think of a computer that can win Jeopardy and has a PhD in a whole lot of things…but in reality, when Watson enters a new profession, it is like a child that needs to learn.

As humans, we learn from birth and can only pass on that knowledge to someone who in turn spends time learning.  AI, like Watson, is similar. It learns by gathering information (i.e. data) and interacting with humans.

You could liken Watson Supply Chain today to a  5th-grader, but its rate of growth is so exponential that it will have a Master’s Degree in Supply Chain within the next three months.

How? Because IBM’s own supply chain practitioners are training it daily by feeding their US$30Bn spend through Watson, pushing through millions of documents, data elements and hundreds of real life supply chain challenges that are resolved each day in the Watson Resolution room. Last year, Watson supported $71.7 billion in revenue, managed 150,000 contracts, and supported 20,000 professionals and 11,000 suppliers to ensure 5,000,000 deliveries were made.

With every insightful response and interaction, Watson is getting smarter. The more Watson is used, the more knowledgeable and insightful it becomes.

I first met Watson at the Gartner Supply Chain Executive conference in London last year. Catching up six months later at Think 2018 in Vegas… even I could see the growth.  Watson is now answering supply chain questions in natural language (plain English), and can curate what is most critical for you to pay attention to – alerting you to an impending disruption, immediately assessing the financial impact of the disruption and will help you drill down effectively to understanding what the issues are that you want your team to resolve, and quickly. Watson does this through opening a resolution room, quickly providing answers that typically reside in different system which reducing the time needed to write emails, make phone calls and follow-ups.

The team at IBM told me that their own implementation of Watson has seen disruption mitigation time reduced from days down to hours – or even minutes in some cases – which is critical when you’re moving inventory in the millions of dollars.

“Watson is brand new every day.  Every time you go away, it grows and becomes more interesting, because it is constantly learning.  You come into the office and there will be a new API. Watson doesn’t take a day off, it is adding knowledge and features 24/7/365.”

Watson Supply Chain Program Director, Rob Allan.

2. Watson Supply Chain is helping save lives

… literally. One of the first user test cases for Watson is a global philanthropic organisation working to improve vaccine distribution in Kenya. Local African pharmacies battle constant low stock of critical medical supplies due to lack of inventory and poor visibility across the supply chain.

It is still early days, but the IBM team is really motivated and engaged with this important humanitarian project. I caught up with IBM Watson Supply Chain’s Program Director Rob Allan, who was energised after a recent visit to Kenya. “It’s great to be putting Watson to work on such a worthwhile project. In Africa, it’s not uncommon for a mother to walk half a day to get medicines, with no guarantee that she will be able to secure what she needs. Our program will deliver vaccines and supplies to more than 4,000 delivery points in Africa. This should make a huge difference to access much needed healthcare. We really hope we can make an impact.”

3. The proof is in the pudding.

 Leading companies, like Lenovo, have started mapping their thinking supply chain journey with Watson…but the biggest proof of concept is IBM itself who has been using Watson to manage its multi-billion dollar global supply chain for the last 18 months.

We all know that necessity is the mother of invention and this was certainly the case for the creation of this product. You may not know that it was actually IBM’s internal supply chain team that created Watson Supply Chain Insights.

If you listen to this webinar, you will learn that IBM’s VP Supply Chain at that time, Joanne Wright, had an “aha” moment back in 2011. A series of unthinkable events prompted Joanne to look for a solution. The Japanese Tsunami had wiped out components globally, volcanic eruptions in Iceland disrupted Nordic freight lines and floods in Thailand destroyed disc drive head production.

Joanne’s team struggled to get the right data and she dreamt of a day where she could get a smartphone alert prioritising supply chain failures, present the relevant data and even suggest solutions.

It wasn’t perfect at first. The team had to find and clean the data and learned that you must train Watson … that can’t be underestimated. They consulted the Watson Health cancer team and understood how to train Watson to talk supply chain.

It would seem that it was worth the effort, as it helped IBM’s Supply Chain save millions in inventory and freight costs, not to mention IBM reduced their supply chain data retrieval times by 75% using Watson – and helped build the technology that will drive supply chain into Industry 4.0.

4. It’s not a big a deal as you think!

From everything I have learned in the last 12 months, implementing Watson Supply Chain may not be as onerous as you think. In terms of time to implement, from London, Raleigh to Vegas I have asked numerous executives and they’re all convinced that they can overlay Watson on existing clients’ systems and have a meaningful dashboard up and running within a month.

5. Blockchain … coming soon.

Having been a Queen B2B in the late 90’s, I have long known the value of having common language and data for taking friction out of business transactions. That’s why I’m excited about blockchain. There’s certainly been a lot of hype, and, of course, the bitcoin currency part is totally out of control… but the idea of having a common ledger or “one version of the truth” for all B2B transactions, with the ability for business partners to get in and view the same information, is very appealing.

Watch this space! IBM previewed a new, blockchain-based offering called “Shared Ledgers” at Think.

Taking the plunge…

There’s definitely been a lot of hype about Watson, but there are some real reasons to start your thinking supply chain journey, powered by AI.

In explaining why Lenovo took the plunge with Watson, Bobby Bernard said, “This space is evolving quickly.  We want to be an influencer about these new supply chain technologies.”

With most technology introductions, most organisations have been able to wait out the early adopters and jump on-board when the technology is mature and in widespread use.

But IBM is warning that this is not the case with AI. According to Watson Customer Engagement GM, Richard Hearn, “Everyday you’re not using AI is another day your competitor or upstart might be leveraging AI to learn, adapt and disrupt your market and you!”

Procurious Founder Tania Seary is an IBM Watson Customer Engagement Futurist and attended #think2018 as an #IBMPartner. 

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