One of Zebra’s newest executives, Suresh Menon, is a well-respected technologist who has been responsible for growing a number of venerated software companies over the last 24 years. He has seen the big impact that small actionable data can have on organizational agility. He also recognizes that companies must embrace software-centric technology solutions powered by artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning if they want to simplify and adapt complex operations to do more with limited resources.
We recently sat down with Suresh to learn more about what organizations should be doing – and how they should be thinking – to better prepare for future disruptions and create more sustainable operations today…
Your Edge Blog Team: The magnitude of change that has occurred in the past year is unprecedented, and we know you’ve been having several conversations with Zebra customers since you joined the company in December to understand the state of their businesses. Can you sum up what you’re hearing? What are the pain points hindering their recovery? What opportunities are they hoping to pursue in the coming months?
Suresh: Everyone from retailers to healthcare providers and even food manufacturers spent the last several months trying to figure out how they can get the right people in the right places at the right time to meet demand. Even more so, they’ve been focusing on empowering those people to do whatever it takes to serve customers, support patients, etc. In many cases, their operations were completely upended. Retail stores had to start functioning as micro fulfillment centers. Hospitals were being set up in convention centers and parking lots. And restaurants had to ramp up to-go options in order to best serve customers in their homes on a much greater scale.
Therefore, many of the conversations we’re currently having with organizations about technology aren’t necessarily in the context of business modernization so much as reinvention. They want to know how technology can help employees more easily interact with new systems and provide new services.
Your Edge Blog Team: As tasks and operations become more complex and businesses are being asked to do more – or something completely new – they are turning to technology to simplify and adapt.
Suresh: Exactly. It’s not just about simplifying complex tasks, though. It’s also about optimizing simple tasks such as inventory counts and rotations – or even patient turnover – that can make a meaningful impact on the customer experience and your bottom line.
Most hospitals grade their operational performance using a bed turnover rate metric. Historically, they’ve been very slow to discharge patients once cleared to go home. A workflow that should take 30 minutes often takes five and a half hours because there are so many gates to clear (such as filling prescriptions) and disruptions (such as shift changes). If you can bring all the back-end systems together in a way that allows for better coordination between the people involved in the discharge process – the nurses, doctors, pharmacists, and porters – you could eliminate the gaps in communication, facilitate more simultaneous actions, and exponentially reduce that turnover time. This will help you see more patients, which benefits everyone.
The same concept applies in retail. You know you have to conduct an annual cycle count – and that it makes the most sense to manage that process in house for several reasons. But you need to ensure the technology tool you leverage for that count is so simple to use that a first-day associate could figure it out in a few minutes and then work independently the rest of the shift. Along those same lines, retail associates might be assigned to online order picking one day, shelf stock replenishment the next, and then the customer service desk the following week. If they don’t have a mobile device in hand with an app that can essentially tell them where to be and what to do when they get there, they will be challenged to be productive. You must give them more than high-level direction, though. That device essentially needs to coach them through each step of department specific processes, tell them how to prioritize tasks, and enable them to collaborate with colleagues when playing a role in highly coordinated workflows, such as order fulfillment.
Your Edge Blog Team: So, the goal is to find technologies that support a more optimized operation?
Suresh: Precisely. When we sit down with business leaders to discuss their technology leads, many ask questions about the nuts and bolts of certain technologies. They want to know what it is and how it works at a fundamental level. Yet, what they really should be asking is how those technologies can work within their unique business environments. If you understand what prescriptive analytics or RFID or a self-directed inventory management solution can do for you, then you can start to visualize the way in which assets can be connected – facilities, inventory systems, equipment, labor. Then, once you make those connections, you start to build this global data pool that makes it easier to see and analyze operations on a holistic scale. You can increase accountability across cross-functional or broader supply chain workflows. You can better gauge operational performance. And you can better direct individuals on what actions they should take in each situation to improve efficiency, productivity and outcomes.
Your Edge Blog Team: Here at Zebra, we often talk about how technology can help organizations become more “intelligent enterprises.” What does that term mean to you? And how should decision makers think about intelligence in the context of their technology strategies?
Suresh: A lot of people think an intelligent enterprise is one that can make sense of all the information flowing into its systems. But business intelligence is only valuable when it elicits action. You can’t just aggregate and analyze all the data captured via mobile computers, scanners, sensors, RFID systems, and intelligent automation platforms across your operation and assume people will know what to do with it. You must incorporate a higher level of intelligence – such as artificial intelligence and machine learning – to uncover the patterns and trends that impact your business. Then, any time opportunities and issues are identified, you must be able to elicit action among front-line workers, managers, or even IT in a very prescriptive and practical manner. Only then will you start to see your workflows enhanced in a way that improves the customer experience and drives operational execution.
Your Edge Blog Team: In a recent Wall Street Journal article, you said “hardware is only half of the solution” when asked about what’s driving retailers’ increased technology spend on software right now. Can you explain more what you mean by that? And do you feel some businesses – or sectors – are underestimating the influence that software has on their ROI for technology holistically?
Suresh: Those who have embraced AI-powered software solutions, such as prescriptive analytics, workforce management, task execution, and even self-directed physical inventory management solutions, have seen just how transformative they can be in a very short period of time. You would be hard-pressed to find any hardware component today that can deliver the return on investment (ROI) expected without synergistic software. This is true of everything from mobile computers, tablets, scanners, wearables, and printers to more advanced RFID, robotics automation, and machine vision technologies. And it’s a notion applicable to all industries. Everyone from retailers, restaurants and hotels to banks, healthcare providers, and warehouse operators benefit from technology that enables them to better manage business processes and assets.
The world has been changing over the past decade, as have customer expectations. This was driven first by the proliferation of digital technology and then, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic. Business leaders are quickly realizing that, if you can’t see what’s happening around you in real time or you can’t figure out quickly how to adjust to disruptions, the customer experience is going to suffer. That, in turn, could result in financial losses which could subsequently reduce your resource capacity and further hinder your ability to keep up with market demands. It’s a vicious cycle.
On the flipside, if you’re able to systematically collate and make sense of all the information at your disposal and figure out how best to use that data, then you can prescriptively tell employees the best next step to take to manage each challenge that arises. You won’t always be able to prevent disruptive events, but you can dampen their effect on your operations and the customer experience by leveraging the right SaaS solutions.
Your Edge Blog Team: Can you give us an example of how you’ve seen software improve a customer’s operations in the past year?
Suresh: Let me give you a more categorical example of the larger trend we’re seeing. If you’re a grocery store manager, and you have a truck that comes in at 11am every day, you might have four people ready to unload the pallets and put away items in the back stockroom every day like clockwork. And you might have a whole other set of workflows in place to support related front-of-store actions, as well as workers who know that – at 1pm every day – they need to go retrieve that new inventory and restock empty shelves to ensure in-store shoppers and online order pickers can find the items they need. This is representative of a system of record. “I have my plan for the week based on how I think things will go.”
Of course, we can’t predict the future and something disruptive inevitably will happen. Perhaps Tuesday’s truck is delayed 4 hours and you have workers that need something else to do. This is where SaaS solutions have become invaluable. Because of the way they’re constantly analyzing data and the unique level of visibility they provide into multiple facets of your operation – even beyond your four walls – the right software solutions can help you prescriptively rework those workflows and redirect labor within minutes. Perhaps there’s a big game tonight and you’re expecting a lot of shoppers to come in for meat, beer, and soda. A prescriptive analytics solution can help identify and assign tasks related to those high demand items to workers to keep them productive – and shelves stocked – while they wait for the truck. Or perhaps you had two of your five banking associates call in sick today. A workforce management app can help you see that the bank branch down the street is overstaffed today and allow you to reassign people to your site for the day. The system of reality powered by SaaS solutions helps you react to issues and opportunities as they unfold.
You can even integrate data from external sources, such as weather reports or the number of local COVID-19 cases, or other internal systems to better understand demand trends that could lead to stagnant inventory without pricing adjustments or potential impacts on labor availability.
Your Edge Blog Team: Are there certain industries or sectors benefitting from data analytics more than others right now?
Suresh: Everyone is trying to cope with this unprecedented scale of change and demand, and everyone is adapting in a different way. If we’re being honest, many organizations have not put data analytics at the forefront of their business strategies yet simply because of historical risk tolerances. They don’t necessarily want to be on the bleeding edge of innovation, even for something as fundamental as SaaS utilization. They want to wait and see how it works for others. Fortunately, investments are starting to pick up now in the SaaS space in healthcare, banking and traditional brick-and-mortar retail.
Warehouse operators and logistics companies need visibility into their assets, and workers need access to real-time data tools that can tell them the best next step to take at every turn. There’s also a dire need for greater visibility into the transaction lineage as goods move from one node – or touchpoint – to the next, starting at the point of production.
Everything from food to vaccines and medicines are closely scrutinized these days to ensure quality is preserved during distribution. Retailers, restaurateurs, consumers and regulators alike want to see when and where farm-raised salmon was packaged. They want to know that it has changed hands seven times between the farm and the table. And, if a quality issue is detected or a delay incurred, they want to be able to trace that chain of custody within minutes to identify the responsible party.
So, we’re going to see more money spent on building this global data pool, making those digital connections, and improving analytics capabilities. The more data we can bring in, the better the analytics will become.
Plus, even businesses with a basic technology setup – maybe a smartphone-like handheld mobile computer used for inventory and order management and a label printer for shipping – will find operational speed and capacity is influenced by the software they choose to use (or not use.) You can buy an enterprise-grade mobile device with all the bells and whistles in the world, but if it’s not running the software you need to properly track inventory utilization, order fulfillment actions, or even demand trends, you’re going to find it very hard to keep up when demand starts increasing, inventory starts depleting, and critical adjustments need to be made.
Your Edge Blog Team: What advice would you give to organizations that have integrated SaaS solutions into their business environments and want to maximize their investments?
Suresh: First and foremost, you must be business oriented, not technology oriented. I know this may seem counterintuitive when you’re talking about how technology can be applied to support your business. But if you think first about your pain points and goals at a very granular level, it will become very easy for you to pinpoint ways in which your solutions can better unite and harmonize each department/function over time as your business evolves and market demands fluctuate. The ultimate goal is to eliminate process bottlenecks that could disrupt workflows and slow down workers. So, be prepared to continuously optimize or scale SaaS solutions to incorporate new data sets, look for new patterns, or make current insights more actionable.
It’s also important to maintain an entrepreneurial mindset at all times. This might feel unnatural, especially for business owners who are rightfully hesitant to do anything disruptive. However, we’re in uncharted territory here. We must think about how we can apply best practices and proven technologies to new business models to maintain workflow efficiency and meet the expectations of today’s workers – many of whom have spent their whole lives with a device, and real-time guidance, in hand. Listen and learn from your peers and competitors, but always make decisions based on what’s best for your unique business. Find a technology partner you trust to keep you focused, and don’t be afraid to think ahead when making decisions about new utilization strategies. I’m always considering what’s around the corner: what type of technology or business model might emerge or suddenly mature? What could potentially disrupt my business or my customers’ businesses?
By taking this future-forward approach to technology decisions, you will gain extreme value from scalable solutions that can support your operation as demand grows, new platforms need to be integrated, and workers require more data to be most effective day to day.
Check out more of Suresh's insights in these blog posts: