The Sagrada Familia, the stunning basilica designed by Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi, celebrated its 135th anniversary this week. But Barcelona’s best-known landmark remains unfinished, a point made by JDA Software CEO Girish Rishi as he took to the stage in the city at the supply chain and retail solutions provider’s FocusConnect 2018 event:

[The Sagrada Familia] is a work in process. I take it very seriously as a lesson for all of us. And the lesson is: you’re never done. Your work is never done. Never think you are complete. Never think you are only open for visitors and not for those who are working on construction.

While the analogy was inaccurate – the enterprise isn’t best regarded as a Gothic artefact, and work on the church is scheduled for completion in 2026 (the centenary of Gaudi’s death) – it was well chosen. Rishi is nothing if not an insightful and pragmatic leader, not a showman, a rarity in these sell-sell-sell-obsessed times.

Indeed, Rishi suggested that message has been at the heart of JDA’s philosophy since he came onboard in January 2017. While consultants and other technology strategists will tell you that retail and the supply chain are all about conspicuous consumption, for JDA it’s about “a value-driven journey”, he said:

Our futures are inextricably linked. As your supply chain becomes more efficient, as you grow, we grow. We are in a value-driven economy. And you will see us come back and underscore that with more specificity.

For JDA, those specifics will be provided by a number of factors: artificial intelligence and machine learning, the cloud, and edge solutions that bring processing closer to the point of need. The latter is a key element of the new supply chain, as the Internet of Things (IoT) becomes critical to tracking the movement of goods worldwide, alongside smart contracts, blockchain, and analytics.

The AI and ML components were boosted by JDA’s acquisition this summer of European software house Blue Yonder (and 110 data scientists), while the cloud platform is Microsoft Azure; let’s face it, few retailers or logistics companies would tolerate a relationship with AWS.

JDA’s entire portfolio will be made available on Azure over the next 12 months, said Rishi, with JDA aiming, at least, to be Redmond’s partner of choice for enterprise supply chains, backed by its own AI and ML portfolio.

But that’s not to say that JDA has pursued a resolute and unchanging course. In recent months, the company has made a significant “pivot”, said Rishi, which he defined as a British concept in which “you look at market realities and course-correct considerably”.

That pivot has been brought about by JDA’s acknowledgement that more and more of its core business will be driven by edge insight as the IoT spreads – a realisation that has struck everyone from Dell to Microsoft and IBM in recent months, all of whom have invested billions of dollars in launching dedicated divisions and/or product lines.

For JDA, its investment is largely in IP, with 41 new patents and 60 core releases to date in 2018 (and 400+ patents in all), along with a commitment to invest over $500 million in R&D by 2021.

Also in 2018, the company launched its Luminate portfolio, on the back of the coming together of the Blue Yonder and Microsoft relationships – a confluence of events that appears to have been fortuitous, rather than planned. JDA also got out of the middleware business, and instead partnered with Mulesoft.


But as the keynote in a series of themed presentations, what was Rishi’s vision?

His core message was that the world of supply chain and logistics is undergoing a pivot of its own, shifting away from passive resource allocation and a rules-bases approach, and towards the dynamic handling of orders based on constantly shifting variables.

Factor in AI and machine learning, he suggested, and users can begin to predict supply chain and logistics needs in granular detail – a theme picked up by Desikan Madhavanur, JDA’s executive VP and Chief Development Officer, and Prof Michael Feindt, founder and Chief Scientific Officer of Blue Yonder in their own presentations.

Madhavanur explained that JDA’s customers are talking about fundamental shifts in their businesses, “from node to network” and from periodic forecasts to real-time analytics.

But a third change is more profound, he said: an industry-wide move towards what he called “a market segment of one” – predicting what will happen in supply chains at individual customer level. In other words, what marketers have long called “the single view of the customer”, but enhanced by AI rather than guesswork and seasonal averages.

Not a new story, then; more an old one enriched with new detail, with the understanding that while some elements of it may be predictable, there’s no final chapter – unless you go out of business.

Customer view

So who is doing this stuff for real, as a long-term bet on the future? JDA was let down by a couple of customer no-shows that left the morning session finishing early, but the ones who did appear had a story to tell.

The most intriguing one came from Rhid Tinkler, IT Director of Retail and New Markets for oil giant BP. What few people fully realise, he suggested, is that BP is itself mid-pivot – and on an epic scale. Not only is it slowly withdrawing from the oil business as fossil fuels dry up (not that he actually said that), but it is transforming into an impulse-buy, convenience-store network that, increasingly, will revolve around electric vehicles.

There’s a generational aspect to this, Tinkler explained: unlike their parents and grandparents, today’s young adults now aspire to mobility by any means, and not to having a driving licence. The subtext was clear: oil is an old-world business, and, over time, will become increasingly marginal to BP.

And in this counter-intuitive new world, BP is already having to rethink its gas station forecourts as smart retail/community hubs where owners and fleet operators will recharge electric vehicles. (A process that will see convenience stores connected to 50 megawatts of power, he added).

Consider this: in some territories, BP is already by far the biggest coffee seller. So like any other company that’s in the retail and supply chain business, BP is working towards creating omni-channel, frictionless experiences, in partnership with providers like JDA.

But reaching that future is no simple matter, acknowledged Tinkler; disruptive change can be alienating for some, and a disincentive for others. You can’t go from “zero to fully integrated Big Brother” overnight, he said. Plus, you have to consider the risk that one customer’s frictionless retail experience may be another’s “freaky stalker” (his words), enabled by AI, facial recognition, and other invasive technologies.

In this fast-emerging environment, rich data is the key to iterative change, he said. And that iterative change is also found in companies’ relationships with their software providers. While JDA’s shift into the world of SaaS provision has enabled BP and others to move more quickly, it has also made them more demanding, he said: