The human touch

From the April 2024 print edition

It’s official, 2024 is the year that AI broke into the mainstream and was adopted by most businesses to improve their strategies and procedures.

From data analytics to demand planning, from process automation to customer service, the applications of this tool are endless. One would be a fool to disagree that AI is the future for any half-respected company.

However, I’m here to build a different case: the fact that the human element is more relevant than ever before and will play an even more prominent role in how we do business moving forward.

Recently in a meeting, a vendor started the conversation by asking about my origins and my family for about 10 minutes. That came
as a surprise to me, and coincidently or not, at the end of the discussion, we converged in our negotiation. By pure instinct, he was doing what every negotiation course calls “building common ground.” A trait that was natural for previous generations has for some reason been lost. It now needs to be taught.

Rodrigo Altaf is senior procurement manager at Dragados Canada inc.

While executives are excited about AI in the workplace, job candidates are more often asked to share “what makes them a perfect fit for this role” – a question that is subjective and, to a great extent, designed to test a candidate’s soft skills. Candidates have become way too savvy in cheating the resume scanning tools, to the point where every resume looks the same. As a result, one’s demeanor, presence and confidence are what differentiate a candidate from hundreds of other applicants. Think about the last time you were hired, or hired someone…how much of that candidate selection was due to soft skills?

In supply chain, soft skills have been historically more relevant than in many other fields. Since this is a relatively new profession, for which there was no “official” course until about a decade ago, many of us had to learn the tricks of the trade from scratch. In Canada, even though certification is desired for many roles, procurement and supply chain remain unregulated professions. Most universities now have supply chain courses, but many teams are still full of lawyers, engineers and business professionals who fell in love with supply chain and got into this field by accident. I’m proud to say I’m one of them, and I learned by making many mistakes in the last 19 years since I stopped working as a civil engineer and went into procurement.

While technological advancements have profoundly altered the way supply chains operate, the human element remains a key component
in their success, being at the heart of innovation, resilience, and sustainable growth. I can pinpoint several aspects in which the human element is key for a well-managed supply chain.

Collaboration and communication
At the core of every supply chain are individuals who cooperate, communicate, and make critical decisions that might impact the entire network. Effective communication and collaboration among suppliers, manufacturers, distributors, and retailers, with a focus on the end user of one’s message, are imperative to ensure seamless operations. Human sensibility and adaptability bridge the gaps between different stages of the supply chain, streamlining the flow of information, troubleshooting, and decision-making. Clear communication aids in averting disruptions, minimizing delays, and quickly adapting to unforeseen circumstances. Moreso than the “perfect ERP system” or the “perfect demand planning tool,” our expertise brings a capacity to adapt and resolve issues in real time. Supply chain professionals draw upon their experience, intuition, and creativity to find solutions when disruptions occur. Their ability to analyze intricate situations and make informed decisions contributes to upholding the continuity of supply chains even in the face of adversity.

Innovation and continuous improvement
While automation and digital technologies have streamlined supply chain processes, it is our intellect and needs that propel innovation and enhancement. Human insights, inventive ideas, critical thinking, and the desire to do better lead to the development of novel strategies, processes, and technologies. These augment efficiency, curtail costs, and optimize resource utilization. Supply chain professionals are at the forefront of identifying innovation opportunities and devising implementation strategies.

ESG practices
Consumers are increasingly concerned with sustainability and ethical practices, and the human element plays a pivotal role in ensuring that supply chains operate conscientiously. It is, after all, for humanity’s sake that sustainability took such a prominent role in today’s business world. We are increasingly engaged in making environmentally responsible decisions, advocating for fair labour practices, and ensuring the ethical sourcing of materials. Human-driven initiatives and efforts can lead to reduced environmental impact, improved brand reputation, and a positive societal footprint.

Customer-centricity
Ultimately, supply chains serve the end consumer. The raison d’être of any business is human need. Supply chain professionals who are attuned to customer demands can customize their strategies to deliver products more effectively, resulting in heightened customer satisfaction and loyalty. As Bruce Dickinson, the lead singer of the rock band Iron Maiden once put it, “companies should focus on creating fans, not customers.”

Negotiations
Negotiations are inherently human interactions, despite the technological tools available to streamline the process. The human element remains crucial in determining negotiation outcomes. Emotional intelligence plays a significant role, as negotiations often elicit strong emotions such as frustration or excitement. With empathy, emotionally intelligent negotiators navigate conflicts more productively. Trust and rapport are foundational in negotiations, fostering an environment where parties feel comfortable sharing information and making concessions. Transparent communication, integrity, and genuine interest in mutual benefit are essential for building trust between negotiators.

Effective communication skills are also paramount in negotiations. Articulation of interests, active listening, and insightful questions facilitate successful outcomes. Non-verbal cues such as body language and tone of voice also contribute to conveying messages and understanding intentions. Cultural sensitivity is vital in negotiations involving parties from diverse cultural backgrounds. Understanding and respecting differences in communication styles and decision-making processes are crucial for building trust and bridging gaps in understanding. Human negotiators can adapt their approach to accommodate cultural nuances, enhancing the likelihood of successful outcomes.

Human negotiators leverage intuition and judgment honed through experience to assess information credibility, anticipate reactions, and make informed decisions in real-time. Flexibility and adaptability are essential qualities in negotiation, as challenges and opportunities can often arise unexpectedly.

Negotiators must adjust strategies, make concessions, and explore alternatives to keep negotiations on track. The ability to think quickly and pivot when necessary is valuable in dynamic negotiation environments. Overall, while technology may facilitate certain aspects of negotiations, the human touch remains indispensable for achieving successful outcomes.

In conclusion, it’s true that the current buzzwords are AI and automation. However, it’s important to remember that sometimes the best negotiations start with a chat about family. As we navigate the complexities of supply chains, let’s not forget the irreplaceable human element – the quirky anecdotes, the gut feelings, and the shared laughs over a cup of coffee. After all, while machines might crunch the numbers, it’s the human touch that seals the deal. Here’s to soft skills, common ground, and the occasional awkward silence that leads to breakthroughs.