While the fashion industry’s Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) efforts are shining a light on the “humanity behind the hemlines,” on the flip side, the industry is also investing heavily into machine learning and predictive analytics, which can often seem devoid of that personal touch. Are artificial intelligence and human relationships mutually exclusive or can they empower each other?
To get to the bottom of this existential question, Sourcing Journal chatted with Jo Anne Benson, senior director, product solutions, for traceability and predictive analytics system Pivot88. With more than 30 years’ experience in distribution, logistics, supply chain and quality management for Walmart, Abercrombie & Fitch, Hollister, Under Armour and The Gap, Benson has an invaluable retailer’s bird’s eye view of the industry.
Benson sees digital tools and machine-learning technologies as means to bring people together for better discourse and collaboration.
“With technology offering transparency, the supply chain now has a voice,” Benson said. “At the granular level, such AI-driven data provides a starting point for conversations around potential risks at a global or regional level, and partners can engage along these risks to build confidence in localized site performance.”
This becomes particularly pertinent today as retailers—drowning in inventory excess—are looking up their supply chains for ways to cut costs to offset margin pressures. Suppliers, meanwhile, can use visibility on quality validation to prove their worth and hang onto partnerships.
“The idea is that when you build out a database, it becomes a transparency tool leveling the playing field,” said Benson. “Now you have suppliers coming back to the retailers saying, ‘Hold on, we actually do have really good performance and we have the data to prove it.’ They have more confidence to say, ‘Sure, you can switch to another supplier, but you run the risk of having lost quality and high learning curves.’”
Machines learn, humans teach
Logistics technology is invaluable to help get the right product to the right place at the right time, but you still need people to interpret AI’s risk triggers—be it a tsunami foreshadowing shipping delays or an epidemic that shutters factories and slows production.
“Machines aren’t re-routing the ships,” said Benson. “AI can use an RSS feed to track global variables and make mitigation suggestions, but you need manual efforts to course correct.”
But first, she said, it’s about picking up the phones to see if your suppliers are ok. It’s seeing how you can work together to forge a path forward. “Leaner teams on both sides appreciate having indicators pushing alignment at a faster pace.”
AI can also use aggregated scorecards to control shipping and pricing, as organizations are starting to use quality data—like inspections and audits—as a form of ancillary data. “If I know my inspection is done, and it’s passing, and it’s early enough, maybe I don’t need to pay for air freight,” said Benson. “A slow boat can help margin pressure.”
AI can provide data and information based on targeted algorithms, but it’s still people programming the machines to glean the right information. To that end, Pivot88 performs “quarterly re-learnings with customers to keep AI properly trained.”
Corporate social responsibility, which is all about people, also benefits from AI. “From WRAP, BSCI/SEDEX to CTPAT and even capabilities audits, AI can interpret findings, make recommendations and even block allocation, but in actuality, it’s a reason to connect person-to-person to begin a solid remediation process,” said Benson.
As a former retailer, Benson draws on her experience to see the full picture. “I always sat in a supply chain role, often providing business analytics to the CIO/CTO & CSCO on how to incorporate quality data in an active role,” she said. “Working with Pivot88, I really understand the digital transformation is so desperately needed in our industry. Cloud-based solutions, powered by AI must be employed to meet the evolving customer, legislative and margin demands.”
And to keep partner relationships strong and growing.
To learn more about Pivot88, click here.