The global supply chain is experiencing a myriad of disruptions including geopolitical tensions, price increase of raw materials, natural disasters, shortage of key components, increased backlogs, and the rapid technological developments such as the explosive rise of generative AI (Gen AI) – to mention a few.

As we move through this period of continuous disruption, the ability to adapt and rethink operations becomes even more critical, writes Mohammed Suliman, operations lead for Accenture, Africa.

Traditional benchmarks, processes and ways of working are no longer enough and will only prevent companies from maintaining competitive advantage and capitalising on new opportunities. Instead, executives and leaders must prioritise and build a new set of capabilities, mapped directly to their key business goals and powered by a strong digital core.

This includes integrated, dynamic solutions that are backed by secure cloud, data and AI tools and technologies. Next-generation capabilities span supply chain, operations and technology enable companies to continuously reinvent their networks to adapt more readily to changes as they happen and adopt new technologies seamlessly as they emerge.

It’s a big challenge. Our research found that most companies’ supply chain network capabilities have a long way to go to reach next-generation maturity. Only a small fraction (10%) of companies, which we define as “leaders” in our study, have applied or are applying the most advanced, technology-powered capabilities needed to deliver multi-dimensional business value.

Importantly, these leaders are accelerating their investments in highly sophisticated capabilities – especially those further enabled by Gen AI – to move beyond existing best practice. For example, our research finds that leaders are investing in next-generation capabilities at four times the rate of other companies.

In doing so, they are poised to quickly pull ahead of all others. Given the business transformation speed facilitated by such capabilities, the gap will only widen, making it imperative for all companies to act today to avoid being left behind. Their first actions should be to put in place the key enablers of greater maturity, which are crucial to getting the absolute most from existing and new technologies. These enablers include a modern and connected IT landscape, advanced data platform, a localised sourcing as well as production footprint and organisational agility.

As our research shows, with more “mature” supply chain capabilities, companies will be better positioned to survive and thrive in today’s new environment. They will be able to manage against and even predict what may come next. They will become more agile, resilient, sustainable and efficient through the promise of AI and other emerging technologies – which are at once a force of change and an answer to solving pressing challenges.

By “mature”, we mean the extent to which a company embraces evolving technologies that continually optimise complex, real-time variables for quick, smart action. When considering supply chain and operations capabilities, we think about maturity in four distinct stages: Past, Now, Near and Next.

Past – operating with legacy technology, limited data visibility and a high reliance on manual, human-involved tasks and decision-making. Now – using some digital tools to facilitate basic operational tasks and featuring partial digitalisation in routine tasks.

Near – scaling up digitisation across operations, with contextualised, high-quality data integrated from various sources, eco-friendly practices and strong ecosystem relationships.

And Next – employing Gen AI and advanced machine learning for autonomous decision-making, advanced simulations and continuous improvement through data analytics and AI-driven insights.

A common area where most companies lack maturity involves the struggle to implement AI. Only about one in 10 companies are engaged in large-scale AI and Gen AI deployment, giving them a significant advantage over their competitors. Our maturity index clearly illustrates the urgency for companies to take action to bolster key capabilities across their supply chain networks. The good news is companies understand this urgency and what they need to do to win.

The question is, how does leadership across supply chain networks and operations make sure their investments translate into an actual increase in maturity – and business value? Key to greater maturity are four enablers, which form the infrastructure necessary to implement and scale up the next-generation capabilities companies need. These enablers aren’t new, but what is new is their increasing urgency.

Companies can no longer treat these as “nice to have,” and they can’t replace these enablers with the latest and greatest new tools. In fact, they are crucial to the ability to fully realise the promise of new technologies, like generative AI, and serve as the foundation for continuously scaling capability maturity across operations.

* Enabler 1: Modernise and connect the IT landscape: Companies need to strengthen their digital core by optimising enterprise platforms, creating data foundations and implementing cloud-native platforms and applications. Backed by this foundation powered by cloud, data and AI, supply chain networks can leverage an interconnected suite of tools to integrate all major supply chain processes, from planning to execution.

* Enabler 2: Implement and advanced data platform: This incorporates a unified and interlinked data model to help turn data into meaningful and contextualised insights. Such a modern, cloud-based platform helps companies overcome common barriers to value: data accessibility, trustworthiness, readiness and timeliness.

* Enabler 3: Localise the sourcing and production footprint: When making major changes to localise networks and boost resiliency, companies should evaluate and enhance the digital maturity of their capabilities to proactively streamline operations, improve resource allocation and adjust productivity levels for greater value.

* Enabler 4: Move towards an agile organisation: Companies must create an “organisation platform” that fosters a high degree of agility across the enterprise. Such a platform incorporates the technology infrastructure and tools that integrate relevant data to support a cross-functional team and key delivery processes. Also key to organisational agility is a highly skilled, tech-enabled workforce. Gen AI is democratising process redesign, giving everyone the power to reshape their workflows. Doing so presents an opportunity to create a more agile, adaptive and productive workforce, aided by new efficiencies.

For companies that have previously downplayed the importance of these enablers, the time for action is now. Without these steps, companies will fail to reach new performance levels – and will only fall further behind those that have this infrastructure in place.

Investing in building highly mature, next-generation supply chain network capabilities isn’t an option – but what every company must do to simply stay in the game where more agile companies and aggressive, digital-driven startups are hungrier and better poised to take the lead.