Blaine: Joining me today is Maria Villablanca, co-founder and CEO at Future Insights Network. Prior to founding the network, Maria was CEO North America and group managing director at World Trade Group. Now, full disclosure, I know Maria from my personal attendance at a number of events that the Future Insights Network put on over the last year including events focused on digital transformation of the manufacturing and supply chain sectors. Thanks for the time, Maria!
Maria: Blaine, thank you so much for having me on your podcast and letting me return the favor after you were on my podcast.
Blaine: You’re very welcome. And I know we both have a lot to say about digital transformation and now I’m more interested in hearing what you have to say about that topic today. I know based on the informal and formal conversations we’ve had in the last year, you definitely have a voice there. So, thank you for bringing it to VANTIQ TV.
Maria: My pleasure.
Blaine: So why don’t you start by telling us a little more about what is the Future Insights Network. What does it do?
Maria: We are a network of thousands and thousands of supply chain, manufacturing, and digital transformation leaders that are trying to cut through the noise, the hype that is perpetuated by all kinds of people and really try to get validation for the real ideas that work within their businesses.
So, we connect people with each other. We hold a series of events. We put content out there, but not in the traditional “Here, read a couple thousand pages.” more of a, “Look, if you want a solution to a problem, I know how to connect you to the right people.” We’re just a network of people trying to find the right solutions.
Blaine: Well, you invited me to attend a few of these events in the last year, and I think the quality of discussion that takes place, the vast majority of the presentations are done by other people who are participants in the space, VPs of supply chain and heads of manufacturing. The insights they bring to the table for the other attendees of these events are just incredible.
Maria: I think the success of events is down to the atmosphere that you try to create. If what you’re trying to do is create a passive environment where people come and watch someone give a case study of something that they did 2, 3, 5, even 10 years ago, it’s not going to yield any kind of dialogue or debate or spark any kind of real solution finding.
Whereas, what we try to do is we try to hand pick the number of people that we’ve got in attendance. It may not be a huge number, but it’s the right people. And then, create that environment that really looks to get dialogue/debate. At the event, there were moments where I had to step in and say, “Guys, can we cut it off here?” Because we’re just talking and talking. We’ve got to move to the next session. It’s just a wonderful tech thing; to get people together and they’re all driving toward solutions.
Blaine: And just for those people that don’t know, these events are no, as you said, trade shows with twenty thousand people walking around a giant room. This is 80 to 100 focused professionals who get to know each other over the course of a few days. Right?
Maria: Yeah absolutely. It’s very closed door. So, we really don’t do a lot of marketing, branding, or inviting in a batch way where a lot of other people invite thousands and thousands of people. That’s great. And there’s a place for those types of events, for sure, but with us, we really just try to get the right, like-minded individuals together in a room.
Continue the debate, not just at the events, but throughout the year. It’s very normal for me to get e-mails from a lot of our members asking me, “Hey I’m looking to implement some sort of digital transformation strategy. Can you put me in the direction of someone who’s done it? What kind of advice would you give for someone that’s just about to embark on that?” We’re really more connectors than anything else. That makes us privy to a lot of really interesting conversations and discussions.
Blaine: Yep. So, we’ll get into that in a second. But first, why did you choose supply chain and manufacturing as focus areas for the Future Insights Network?
First of all, I find that it’s a very exciting area. When you think about the impact that manufacturing has on any GDP, on any nation, if manufacturing were to fall down, it would be almost the end of several economies. It’s a very huge part of what everybody does.
Secondly, (I also have a very big interest in this) after college, I worked in food manufacturing, so I was on the commercial side. I’m not an engineer or anybody on the technical side, but I certainly did operate within a winery business in Latin America and I ran a joint venture between the Latin American wine business and a Chilean wine business. So, I really got to see firsthand how bottling works, how supply chain works, how we get goods across different kinds of [borders]; bottling things and sending to France, Latin American, the States.
That was a long time ago and I’ve always had an interest in the way that these things move and how the nature of geopolitical forces, consumer-driven economies, all these things have an impact on manufacturing and supply chain. The other thing is that we’re living in a very exciting time. Things are changing. Business models are changing. Consumer behavior is changing. So, if you are an executive, a leader in this industry, it’s very difficult to do your job because it’s not the same as it was 20 years ago, 30 years ago. I like the fast-paced nature of it.
Blaine: Well, that’s probably a good segue into the core topic about digital transformation.Based on all the many, many people you talk to in the supply chain/manufacturing space that are undergoing various stages of their own transformation, where do you think the market is at generally? What level of maturity is it at and what are the key struggles that it’s facing?
Maria: I think it’s at a very exciting time. There are a lot of people that, if you rewind maybe five years ago, people were just beginning to start talking about digital transformation, start making plans for it. I think we’re at the point where people are really implementing it. We haven’t reached, I don’t think in my humble opinion, the peak of it. Although, I think there’s probably a little bit of a maturity curve happening, some of the high-level technologies, whether it’s conversations around blockchain or whatever, there is still a very big interest in that.
The struggles I think are mostly around the hype. Where do you look? You get organizations that are trying things and failing, probably because they’re doing it in very large, moon shot type of projects when really, the best approach is to look at smarter, smaller things to do. There are a number of things that if these companies don’t implement some form of digital transformation, they will not be around in 10 years, 20 years.
Blaine: Well, at your last supply chain event, we heard some incredible case studies and examples of companies that are really doing some amazing projects and really at, what I would call, the leading edge of digital transformation. But then, I agree with you. When I spoke to the general group, most companies were far behind that. We’re still at the very basic levels. Do you think this talk about digital transformation scares people in this space or are they excited about where it could go for them?
Maria: I think it’s a little bit of both. I think people are very excited about the possibilities of getting real-time information, making better decisions, getting more visibility, getting their goods to market far quicker, responding to consumer demand, all of those things are really exciting things right now for the industry, but it’s also a daunting prospect. People have very, very short memories about implementation of large ERP programs that fail dramatically. A lot of money has been spent on things that have failed. There’s a lot at stake.
It’s very difficult for someone who’s a leader in supply chain/manufacturing or digital transmission to stick their head above the parapet and say, “OK. You know what? I’ll take this project on and I will run with this unknown to some degree.” It’s exciting and daunting at the same time and more importantly, to try to do that whilst at the same time running the day to day operation of your business. I’ve used this analogy before, but it is like driving a bus down the highway and trying to change the tires while it’s still moving. It’s a near-impossible task, but it falls upon these leaders today to make it happen.
Blaine: Yeah. Yeah absolutely. Now, because you run events both in the US and in Europe, are you seeing or sensing any significant differences between how European companies and US companies are thinking about their digital transformation journey?
Maria: That’s a really interesting question. By my accent, you can tell that I am American, although I’ve lived here in London for 18 years now.
Blaine: Okay, that makes you an honorary UK person.
An honorary Brit. Sure. At least, you know, until Brexit happens. Don’t get me started on that one [laughter].
But, I think in general, both sides of the pond are very excited about what digital transformation offers. I think when I speak with my American colleagues, they’re probably a little bit further down the line in their journey, probably because of the proximity to Silicon Valley to the number of types of companies that are there to help. But, at the same time, I think that the European companies really get the process is part of the business, the fact that they really have to prepare themselves very well and start thinking about this in a very serious way. So, it’s a bit of both.
Blaine: And sometimes, you don’t always necessarily want to be on the leading edge because you can take some arrows.
Maria: Absolutely. That’s my point. You are sticking your head above the parapet. If you want to be the one that does that, you get your head shot off.
Blaine: Well, and many of the companies, say your last event, were multinational companies. They might have been based in Europe, but I would say I agree with you in general that perhaps Europe is lagging a little bit to the US, although that might be changing. But absolutely, there were some case studies and some examples I heard where they were truly on the leading edge. It’s amazing.
Maria: You can’t really dismiss the level of technological advancement that’s taking place here in Europe as well. From a perception perspective, obviously everybody looks at the US and looks at Silicon Valley and looks at the technology happening there. But, there are a lot of really great innovations that are happening here in Europe too.
Blaine: Now, you had a really interesting panel on diversity in supply chain operations. And actually, I missed the panel, but I know it was really interesting because everybody was talking about it afterward. It was quite amazing. Tell us a little bit more about why that was so interesting and what the theme of the discussion of that panel was about.
Maria: Without necessarily trying to age myself too much, but probably my first events in supply chain were almost about 16/17 years ago and I was probably the only woman at these events, maybe one other person. Now, we’re seeing way more women in leadership positions in supply chain and manufacturing roles which are traditionally seen as male-dominated roles. You’ve seen more diversity: different genders, different denominations, different backgrounds of people.
I believe that supply chain and manufacturing has a bit of an image issue in terms of how you actually overcome the fact that they’re normally seen as warehousey-type, lifting-type jobs as opposed to what they really are which is jobs that require a great deal of mental agility, juggling, multitasking, and therefore, very well suited to women and very well suited to millennials as well that are coming into this marketplace.
Insofar as the image goes, how do you get millennials to join a traditional manufacturing job or a supply chain job over joining Google or joining a really sexy business in Silicon Valley? When you realize that there’s so many advancements happening in supply chain and manufacturing today, I think that we in this industry don’t do enough to promote the real exciting elements of the industry. The fact that there’s so much innovation taking place with machine learning, AI, the possibilities of influencing the economy is just phenomenal.
Blaine: Yeah. You’re absolutely right. I came away from the two events I was with you at the manufacturing event and the supply chain event, both absolutely energized with the amazing initiatives and the cool technologies they’re bringing in. These folks are trying to be on the leading edge of transforming the operations of their business. But, I want to get back to the diversity because you said something interesting there about Millennials. It never occurred to me that bringing Millennials into a business was part of a diversity initiative. That’s interesting you brought that up.
Maria: Well, again going back to what I see. When I look around, a lot of these supply chain and manufacturing events, most people kind of all look alike. We all make jokes at it and even the guys make jokes. It’s all 45 to 55 year olds.
Blaine: Older, white men [laughter].
Maria: Exactly. And so, how do we change that? First of all, why do you change it? I think we can all agree that diverse teams are positive. Diversity leads to different thinking and great new ideas. Some of the greatest ideas have come out of teams that have different opinions.
I think that with the millennial side of things, it isn’t just attracting millennials to really exciting jobs in coding or in startups. It’s also not just about having cool beanbags and a funky coffee bar. It’s about creating the right environment that will A. attract millennials with their different ideas and B. keep millennials engaged. And then you will find that they will contribute significantly.
They are ultimately, maybe they don’t have the same buying power that Gen Xers have or baby boomers have today, but they are the buying power of the future. They are definitely the decision makers of the future and they are the ones that are driving that kind of consumerism that’s leading traditional manufacturers to think about their own processes, to think about customization, to think about faster delivery times. I think the millennial voice is a very important voice in this industry. It needs to be considered very carefully and included in the conversation on diversity.
Blaine: Really, really interesting. I think that’s a bit of a mind expander for me because I hadn’t thought of diversity from that perspective before, but you’re absolutely right. Millennials will, and the younger generations, will bring a very interesting perspective on technology, on process, on what’s possible, not to say that the people we’ve been speaking to already are not trying to be on the leading edge. Absolutely.
Maria: We all have a place. We have great contribution to make, whatever generation that we come from. It’s not about shutting out one generation or one type of group over another. It’s just about getting another voice to the table that can contribute to that.
I ran an event where I had a traditional manufacturers, again, the usual crowd. These were manufacturers across multiple vertical sectors, very high end, Fortune 500 companies. The star of the show really was a millennial startup company that had sold their business to a large manufacturer. Her background was in setting up startup teams. She couldn’t be left alone at the event because people just wanted to have a chat with her, not just about her opinion on things but, “how do you run teams? What is your thinking behind supply chain?”.
Because it normally transcends the thinking that we have. We’re more… Again I hate to peg myself into one generation. This is generalizing, of course. But, I’ll give my example. Sometimes I think, “how do I solve this problem? I know. I’ll spend a little bit more money and I’ll do this this way. I’ll hire a team or I’ll hire that and I’ll sort it out that way.” That’s what we were taught. That’s what I was taught in business school: to do a cost benefit analysis, do the ROI analysis. And then, here comes a millennial and says “You don’t need to do this. You can outsource this. You can outsource that. Check out this Web site.” And before you know it, the problem is solved without spending much more money. That kind of thinking should be welcome at the table.
Blaine: Really interesting. Great thought process. This is one of my favorite parts of the conversations on VANTIQ TV where I ask the guest if there is an area where they’d like to call BS on some aspect of conventional wisdom. Is there some area where most of the market is thinking X and you actually think Y?
Well, I feel very strongly about the following. I hear tons and tons of conversations around digital transformation, digitization, digitalization. It’s all digital, digital, tech, tech, tech, and that’s great. It’s really exciting. I’m really excited about blockchain and excited about AI/machine learning, robotics, really exciting stuff.
Where I call BS is I think that none of that will fix any of the problems that companies have if they are not layered on top of the right processes and the right people. I think that companies need to perhaps speak a little bit more about the kind of processes they have. It’s like building a house on rotten foundation. If you build a really amazing house with fantastic design, but yet it’s on sloppy ground, it’s not going to work. That’s where I call BS. I think it’s about processes and people and then tech.
Blaine: Yeah. And it sounds like when you say processes and people, you’re also talking about culture.
Maria: One hundred percent. Digitization is also a mindset thing. It’s also seeing the opportunities across every business process. What can be improved here and how can you work collaboratively with technology. Otherwise, you don’t get adoption. If you get someone that brings in technology and says, “We’re going to replace the workforce.” no one’s going to adopt it. But, if you bring in technology to help enhance the workforce and work collaboratively with people then you’re going to get a recipe for success.
Blaine: Yeah right on. I could not agree more. Any final tips or takeaways for a supply chain or manufacturing operations leader that is trying to figure out how to drive their digital transformation?
Maria: I get this a lot. It’s very difficult. It’s a very lonely position to be in because they are under severe pressure from their board of directors to modernize, to increase production and optimize everything whilst maintaining low costs. It’s a really tough job and lonely job at that. How do you validate your ideas? I think that the best way to do that, I do have a vested interest in saying this, is connecting with people, talking to people, really understanding ways of understanding who else is doing this successfully, who’s made mistakes, where can I learn that, not necessarily buying into the hype, but really researching, validating your ideas with other people.
Blaine: Yeah. Well, vested interest or not, you’re absolutely correct. Connecting with other practitioners and other people in the community and vendors and partners. That’s the way you learn. That’s the way you figure out what other people have done that’s successful and maybe not successful and I think that’s a key to successful digital transformation. I totally get it, which is why I’m really so supportive and excited about what you’ve been doing with the Future Insights Network.
Maria: Thank you.
Blaine: Yeah you bet. Well, Maria, I think that wraps it up. Thank you for joining us today for this really great conversation.
Maria: Thank you Blaine. It’s been a pleasure.
Blaine: You’re welcome. Those interested in learning more about the Future Insights Network and the markets they cover should check out futureinsights.org. And once there, you can also check out the fin TV podcast and video channel, actually, which has some similarity to VANTIQ TV but focused on supply chain and manufacturing as this conversation has been. And of course, you can reach out to me anytime at real [email protected]