The rapid advancement of technology is both a threat and an opportunity for logistics workers. Robotics, autonomous vehicles and artificial intelligence could reduce the number of available jobs in certain categories. For example, one report estimated that 294,000 US trucking jobs could be eliminated over the next 25 years as a result of autonomous vehicle technology. However, the growth of cloud technologies offers an opportunity for these workers to move beyond undifferentiated roles into knowledge work that is more aligned with their organization’s goals. This offers logistics workers the possibility to work in safer and more rewarding jobs that offer higher compensation.
Logistics employers are recognizing the impact of technology on their recruiting and employee retention efforts. In a 2019 survey, 59% of shippers and 3PLs reported that attracting talent was a top workforce issue facing their organization. The quality of an employer’s talent is a critical factor in their ability to execute on their strategic goals and succeed in competitive industries. Successfully leveraging technology investments like SaaS requires the right human resources. In the same 2019 survey, 52% of shippers said changing technology capabilities and advancements, such as digitization, automation, and predictive analytics have altered the workforce and talent strategy at their organizations. In response to these trends, employers are increasingly hiring more technology-savvy logistics workers, more business-savvy technology workers, or hybrid roles that can operate well in both competencies.
Logistics workers that understand the impact of cloud and the challenges it presents to employers can leverage these trends to transform their careers. A warehouse supervisor that focuses on simple order fulfillment tasks today could become a data analyst that rebalances inventory locations for optimal pick efficiency and reduces labor costs by analyzing seasonality and employee task performance. A customs brokerage associate that reviews trade documentation and keys data into customs software could become a process automation expert that uses cloud services like optical character recognition to automate labor-intensive tasks for her and the rest of her team. Often the first step into more differentiated roles will be value creation in their current position through the use of technology. When significant business results are delivered, leadership will want more. Eventually, new roles or career opportunities may be created to scale the initial results offered by the employee.
A career transformation from a first-line logistics worker to a logistics technologist requires planning and effort to develop the necessary skills. In work environments that use SaaS tools, these skills can often create career advancement opportunities quickly. Here are five actions logistics workers can take to support their career transformations.
Learn the Logistics Domain
A great technologist can identify business problems and build relevant solutions with technology. An individual cannot do this effectively without putting in the time and effort to learn the business domain. In logistics that means learning about transportation and warehousing. The best way to develop this domain knowledge is to get some experience doing real logistics work. Exposure to common tasks like picking orders, booking freight with carriers, auditing freight bills or communicating with customers will provide a better understanding of operational processes as well as empathy for the workers that perform these tasks.
Performing real logistics work helps the individual understand business constraints. At a superficial level, processes always appear simple and easy to improve. But by performing the task, it is possible to see the limitations and complexity that have resulted in the current state process. After executing a process in a wide range of conditions, the aspiring technologist can get an in-depth understanding of related problems and potential improvements.
Typically in any logistics organization, there are a handful of veterans that have a deep understanding of operations processes. Individuals wishing to grow their logistics careers should seek these veterans out and learn from them. An individual with a lengthy career can provide perspective about how business practices have evolved and how various types of technology affected those practices. In some cases, these veterans may not be as comfortable with newer cloud technologies, but their hesitations should be heard out and considered. Frequently SaaS products get things wrong, and highly experienced workers can provide valuable insights that can trigger enhancements or workarounds to the software to improve its efficacy. Perhaps a startup’s mobile app intended for trucker drivers may be failing to get traction. Further feedback from experienced drivers may reveal the app is not ergonomically designed for use while driving, or that the drivers have concerns with the GPS tracking feature. A worker that has spent a career driving a truck would be in an ideal position to recognize these types of obstacles.
The value of a technology solution is never fully understood until it starts facilitating business transactions with real customers. Logistics workers that interact with customers frequently are in a perfect situation to learn how technology can improve the customer’s experience. When customers need a problem to be solved, workers with strong technology capabilities reach into their toolkit of SaaS capabilities for a creative solution.
Performing daily logistics work is the most effective way to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the SaaS product. An order picking function on a mobile device may seem perfectly well-designed until an individual uses it to process a live order in the actual warehouse environment. Often constraints that were not initially considered are discovered. Those striving to become technologists in the logistics domain should seek to understand the true operational situation before attempting to automate.
Specialize in a SaaS Product
Intimate knowledge of the organization’s SaaS products is a critical skill for an aspiring technologist. Typically, logistics workers are only trained on the specific SaaS functions that are relevant to their daily tasks. However, a holistic understanding of the SaaS and its capabilities provides a broader context about how the software is designed and how it can add value.
Logistics workers can develop their expertise by reviewing the SaaS product’s user documentation and training materials. Sometimes this information is publicly available on the provider’s web site or social media sites. Exploring the provider’s API documentation can also provide a better understanding of the software’s internal architecture and key database entities. If the SaaS provider offers a certification program, workers should use this opportunity to learn the system and demonstrate their knowledge to employers. Examples of these certifications in the logistics field are the Oracle Warehouse Management Cloud 2018 Certified Implementation Specialist and the CargoWise Certified Professional.
Actively working with the SaaS tool in live business operations will probably be the best way for logistics workers to deepen their knowledge. Whenever new business scenarios are encountered, workers should welcome these opportunities to learn new software features. When internal stakeholders or customers are looking for data, ambitious logistics workers should embrace the challenge to locate the data in the SaaS and extract it into a usable format. Solving real business problems and overcoming daily challenges will lead to a strong foundational knowledge about the SaaS which will support more advanced pursuits like developing automation or integrations.
Automate and Integrate
A common path to creating business value will be automating business processes and integrating systems. Even a rudimentary ability to automate SaaS processes and integrate with the SaaS’s API will be highly valued in the cloud-powered workplace. Logistics workers can start by learning about any existing workflow capabilities in the SaaS tool. Often SaaS tools include built-in automation features that trigger emails, data extracts, or user tasks. One should learn which capabilities are supported natively in the software before moving on to more complex automation approaches.
Another approach to automating SaaS-based processes is using automation tools that manipulate the user interface. RPA tools like Blue Prism, UiPath, and Automation Anywhere are specifically targeted toward this. However there are simpler ways of automating processes and repetitive tasks. Browser automation tools allow users to record their interactions in a web browser and create scripts to repeat this interaction automatically. This type of tool could be used to start up the SaaS application, log in, navigate to a particular menu item, and trigger a process, at a certain time every day. There are a variety of tools that focus on automating web user interfaces including UI.Vision Kantu, Progress iMacros for Chrome, Katalon Recorder, or the Selenium browser test automation framework. Even simple text expansion tools can help automate some repetitive tasks. Perhaps it is necessary to type the same string of text in notes for every purchase order. A tool like Text Expander can insert snippets of text based on a short abbreviation, and the snippet library can be shared across team members.
Logistics technologists should also develop a deep understanding of their SaaS tool’s API. If the SaaS is already integrated with a process automation tool, that can be an effective way to start experimenting. Logistics workers can set up workflows that trigger emails when certain events happen in the SaaS, store data in third party services for analysis, or integrate the SaaS with other systems like the CRM or financial applications.
In many cases, the WMS or TMS will not come pre-integrated with popular process automation tools so it will be necessary for the worker to use a general tool designed for exploring and testing APIs. An example of this type of utility is Postman. Workers can use Postman to experiment with the SaaS API and become familiar with its capabilities. Postman also includes simple scripting capabilities which are intended for API testing but can also be used for automating workflows.
The most advanced method to work with the SaaS API will be using a programming language. This will provide the most flexibility and makes it far easier to operationalize the resulting workflows. If an API helper library is available for the SaaS API, this will be the easiest way to start building automation. API helper libraries make it easier for developers to work with the SaaS API methods in specific languages. An analysis done in 2013 found the five most popular programming languages targeted by API helper libraries are PHP, Python, Ruby, C#, and Java. Those wishing to cultivate programming skills to work with APIs should start with one of these languages, especially if an API helper is available for the SaaS in that language.
Cultivate People Skills
In order to solve business problems with technology, logistics workers need to develop their intrapersonal skills. Soft skills like effective communications, conflict resolution, and adaptability can be more valuable to the organization than pure technical competencies. There tends to be a direct correlation between soft skills and the worker’s ability to create value. However, many employers are finding it difficult to recruit talent who have these skills. In a Wall Street Journal survey of 900 executives, 92% said soft skills were equally or more important than technology capabilities. A LinkedIn survey also showed that 58% of hiring managers believe the inability to find job candidates with soft skills was limiting their organization’s productivity. In a workplace where social skills are frequently at a deficit, aspiring technologists should focus on cultivating these abilities to be more effective.
Cultivating empathy for customers and coworkers is key to practical problem-solving. Logistics workers need to become sensitive to the frustrations encountered by those around them. This pain frequently points to a problem that could be addressed by technology. Perhaps a customer is often frustrated by her finance team’s constant questions about inventory valuation. An empathetic worker will seek to understand the issue, connect the problem to systems and processes within his control, and implement a solution. A quick solution to the inventory valuation problems could merely be configuring the WMS to email an aged inventory report in Excel format to the customer at the end of each day. Generating business value in these cases requires both expertise with the technology toolset and also an intimate understanding of people’s problems.
When new technology is implemented, the change can be disconcerting for employees. Effective change management is key to ensuring workers embrace the new process. In order to receive buy-in from employees affected by the change, it is crucial to explain the reasons for the change and to listen to their concerns. The front-line workers that will be adopting the new technology are critical to the success of the project. Again, soft skills become critical. Regardless of how effective a new cloud service is, unless the technologist can gain support from the front-line workers, the project is likely to fail.
Start Solving Problems
Popular continuous improvement models like W. Edwards Deming’s Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) or Six Sigma’s define, measure, analyze and control (DMAIC) provide a structured approach to problem solving. Some large enterprises have saved billions of dollars in operating costs by implementing these types of initiatives. If done consistently, the simple act of noticing situations that are not optimal and implementing incremental fixes can provide significant business improvements over time. A high sensitivity about problems or waste in daily operations can provide a constant stream of projects that can be addressed using the practices previously described.
When building technology solutions, it is essential to validate and quantify results whenever possible. Without a feedback loop, it is possible to churn through technology changes without delivering real business improvements. Before introducing technology changes, it is vital to work with stakeholders to define success metrics. After the project is implemented, these measurements can be reviewed to ensure the desired outcome was achieved.
Those individuals that embrace problems and take accountability for outcomes will often experience accelerated growth and learning. Each new challenge offers opportunities to learn more about the organization’s software and its integration capabilities. A deeper understanding of process automation and business intelligence tools will continually grow as the individual’s skills are tested regularly. Both logistics workers and technologists can use this problem-solving mentality to stay aligned with overall business results and as a framework for career growth.
About the Author
John Berry has spent the last 30 years building software and data solutions for some of the world's most well-known supply chains. He believes supply chain and logistics are great career paths for those looking to establish technology careers. He is currently the IT Director for JUSDA Supply Chain Management, a member of the Foxconn Technology Group. In this role he leads a team that develops technology solutions for the global manufacturing supply chain. John is a contributor to the upcoming book The Digital Transformation of Logistics: Demystifying Impacts of the Fourth Industrial Revolution published by IEEE Press.
Want to learn how to use data integration techniques to optimize business results and supercharge your career? Enroll in John's Data Integration Fundamentals course on Udemy.