At the beginning of 2023 we started a new reoccurring series on this blog where we try to summarize what happened at each of our events: NASRS23 in a Nutshell, NAMES23 in a Nutshell, PMWS23 in a Nutshell, EUSCES23 in a Nutshell, NASCES23 in a Nutshell, and NAFS23 in a Nutshell all do a fine job of walking through what happened hour by hour and day by day, but the trouble with summaries is they do not leave a lot of extra room for notes about conversations I had on site, or themes and moods I picked up on that feel different from past years.

Fortunately, that just gives me an excuse to write a more focused follow-up column a few weeks later, and that is what you have before you now.

When I think back to NASCES22, I think my overriding takeaway was every supply chain leader was talking about building resiliency into their organizations. The post-pandemic business landscape is still one of frequent disruption of all shapes and sizes, and the innovations born out of keeping things moving during COVID-19 were driving everyone to think proactively about reducing risk and building capability to be able to respond quickly and roll with the punches even if it cost a little more. People who read this blog, review our shared sessions, and follow our podcast are going to remember just how much this has been discussed over the last year.

While Supply Chain Resilience, Risk Management, and Footprint and Network Optimization are all still major trends, I was surprised at some of the things I heard a lot about at NASCES23 that would not have cracked the Top 10 talking points of NASCES22 to my mind.

Let’s get into them in the order that impressed me most.

Forecasting and Sales & Operational Planning

I will preface this by saying of course people were talking about S&OP and demand forecasting at NASCES22, just as they did at all the previous NASCES and all the other supply chain events I have ever been a part of during my time building industry conferences. This is a bread-and-butter competency of supply chain professionals, and no one has ever said they have it down to a perfect science with no room for improvement.

The mood was different at NASCES23, though. Last month in Arizona, everyone was willing to admit in a low voice that the pre-pandemic best practices do not work anymore. Customer expectations have changed, and so has the logistics and fulfillment systems and processes needed to meet those changing expectations. Where during the deepest months of the crisis anything approaching normal performance was heralded as a victory and every setback was explained away as expecting the usual in unprecedented circumstances, today the highs are not so high and the lows are totally unacceptable. Resiliency requires an understanding of what is possible to build in additional capacities and capabilities. Meanwhile, a forecast that is disconnected from reality is a disaster waiting to happen, no matter what countermeasures are being put in place.

All the benchmarks and tried and true methods for how to get forecasting back to where it was in 2018 or 2019 are now dated. New models and new tools are being created as we speak to better predict demand, and from them we are seeing reforms to how Sales & Operational Planning and also Sales & Operational Execution act on those forecasts. Without talking about throwing the baby out with the bath water, the feeling I took away from every conversation I had about forecasting, S&OP, and S&OE is that the old ways are not working, and the moment of crisis is now far enough behind us that everyone really, really needs to figure out a new and reliable system to build everything else upon moving forward. We can talk a little more about how that might work in another trending topic still to come.

Procurement, Sourcing, and Supplier Management

Again, let’s take as read a preface at the top that we have always and will always be talking about procurement, sourcing, and supplier management at our events. We have even strongly considered launching a dedicated procurement series, although for the time being at least we think the happiest arrangement is to build procurement streams of content into broader, universal, and holistic supply chain events.

With all that said, we can all acknowledge that Supply Chain Resiliency —the biggest trend by far of last year’s supply chain and manufacturing conversations— starts with looking at the beginning of the value chain to ensure reliable partners can offer the organization what it needs in the quantity and quality it needs it. This shakeup is ongoing, and some painful lessons have been learned through disruptions so numerous, the public at large is now comfortable talking about supply chain troubles in a way that was not in the zeitgeist five years ago, but real progress is being made to broaden out and regionalize supplier bases. When you talk to people working in this space right now, their eyes light up. They have stories to tell, and those stories are built on good news even if the ending is still being written.


One of our earliest blog posts in this series was, “Inventory During Disruption: Striking the Balance Between Efficiency and Risk Management,” and I have had many conversations over the last two years at a number of manufacturing and supply chain events that have all reinforced the notion that businesses have accepted that taking on excess inventory is just one of the burdens that needs to be shouldered as their organizations built up resiliency on the strength of having a little more than they needed at any one time, just in case a disruption bottlenecked a process somewhere. Businesses that had spent the last two decades defining world-class supply chains as entities with as close to zero waste as possible where Just-in-Time delivery was both achieved and constantly being improved upon set aside all those hard-won accomplishments and disciplines just to make sure everything kept moving even when there were hiccoughs in the value chain.

At NASCES23, for the first since COVID-19, I heard real discussion about course correcting that.

Now no one is saying supply chains are ready to get back to being high-performance low-waste lean organizations that view excess inventory as a profane idea, but there is enough daylight now between where we stand and where we stood that people are willing to acknowledge you can have an excess of excess, and there is still money to be saved by being more thoughtful about where reserves are actually kept and for what purpose and how much and for how long.

I would call this an emerging trend that I expect will rapidly pick up speed on the strength of it being the way supply chain executives’ minds are wired anyway; I expect inventory reduction as a means of cost control is going to become an idea that spans industries and touches everyone very soon. Pair that with getting realistic forecasts, S&OP, and S&OE back into the mix, and a lot of good work is about to be done very quickly.

Artificial Intelligence

Someone somewhere is probably a little unhappy with me for not having this higher on the list of emerging trends. AI is everywhere right now. Every session on our agenda with AI in the title is well-attended. Every service- and solution-provider in our Exhibition Hall with an AI offering has a steady stream of people coming by to talk to them. I have already expressed my personal reservations about ChatGPT while acknowledging it may well be the tipping point that makes AI a real business tool that everyone understands and agrees to use moving forward.

I am putting AI at this point on my list of NASCES23 trends, because when supply chain executives are saying their forecasting and S&OP and S&OE and procurement and sourcing and supplier management and inventory control all need to be improved, they are hoping AI is going to be the difference maker that helps them do all these things better than they could ever do it before, and I believe this is exactly what we should be using AI for too. All our conversations about Digital Transformation have included a part where we say, “And with all this data, just think what we can do!” but realistically there is more data than any person can actually process. It was always going through some kind of computer algorithm looking for what was actually important, and now those algorithms can actually learn as they go and build upon successes and failures to become more and more powerful.

Why doesn’t forecasting work as well today as it did before the pandemic? Put the numbers into an AI and see what it has to say. Where are the real bottlenecks and risk of disruption in our procurement and logistical network? Give the AI the data and see what it says. Where can we get the most bang for our buck stocking up on extra inventory to avoid unscheduled downtime? Have the AI do a work-up of what would happen if we have extra inventory at every stage of our processes and tell us where it sees the best results.

I would call AI a fairy tale —too good to be true— but from every conversation I have had in the last year or so, especially in the supply chain space, we really are seeing the magical promises becoming realities. Supply chain data is ideally suited for Artificial Intelligence tools trained to find patterns and then self-reinforcing successful pattern recognitions. Supply Chain organizations have always been good at gathering data, and the best of them have always been open to new tools and technologies to get the most value out of that data. The coming generation of new AI tools really looks like it is going to work miracles, and those are some exciting conversations to have and to overhear.

Going Back to Basics, While Updating Them

Everything we have talked about so far really is revolving around the notion that the crisis of COVID-19’s sudden impact on global supply chains and consumer behavior and expectations is not over now firmly in the past, but we are also far enough away from it that the stop-gap answers and unexpected solutions developed during periods of crisis management are now also no longer something to be worked around and admired for having done their jobs in a difficult time. Businesses are fully over the idea of moving from fire to fire reactively. The time to be proactive has been here for a while now, but the business landscape has changed. Going back to the standard operating procedures of four or five years ago will not even get you the results you wanted four or five years ago, let alone better ones.

We need to get back to doing what we do best —making supply chains more efficient— but every one of the old ways we used to do that need to be re-examined, tested, and improved as it is put back into place, and where necessary new tools giving new capabilities are going to replace old methods that are no longer reliable.

Change can be scary. We did not ask for such a dramatic change so suddenly. Most organizations that are still standing can be justifiably proud in how they weathered the storm of the pandemic, but that time is now clearly in the rearview mirror, and if resiliency and a heightened sensitivity to risk and disruption are still watchwords learned from harsh lessons, then controlling costs gets to be a watchword again too. So does continuous improvement. So does enhancing capabilities and leveraging new tools and technologies to make better decisions more quickly. The mood at NASCES23 was one of optimism, of a return to normalcy, even if it is a ‘New Normal.’

I came away from the event with a lot of positivity that an unpleasant chapter of our shared story is now over, and people are looking forward to the next chapter, even if it does entail a lot of hard work still to come. In my experience supply chain leaders have always enjoyed the hard jobs, and now they get to focus on making things better again, which is another passion they share collectively as a group of motivated professionals.

Geoff Micks
Head of Content & Research
Executive Platforms

Geoff joined the industry events business as a conference producer in 2010 after four years working in print media. He has researched, planned, organized, run, and contributed to more than a hundred events across North America and Europe for senior leaders, with special emphasis on the energy, mining, manufacturing, maintenance, supply chain, human resources, pharmaceutical, food and beverage, finance, and sustainability sectors. As part of his role as Head of Content & Research, Geoff hosts Executive Platforms’ bluEPrint Podcast series as well as a weekly blog focusing on issues relevant to Executive Platforms’ network of business leaders.

Geoff is the author of five works of historical fiction: Inca, Zulu, Beginning, Middle, and End. The New York Times and National Public Radio have interviewed him about his writing, and he wrote and narrated an animated short for Vice Media that appeared on HBO. He has a BA Honours with High Distinction from the University of Toronto specializing in Journalism with a Double Minor in History and Classical Studies, as well as Diploma in Journalism from Centennial College.