Evolving Warehouse Processes as the Supply of AS/400 Talent Tightens
I recently had a conversation with a supply chain executive about how he was trying to enhance his company’s inventory management and overall warehouse processes. His organization has been lightly discussing this business need for several years. His company has grown at double-digit percentages over the last few years and they’re confident about their future direction.
It was an engaging conversation and we discussed some of the obstacles to advancing their solution platform to better support the challenges confronting their warehouse operations.
As a long-time AS/400 customer (only IBM really refers to the computing platform as the iSeries), their team has developed so many custom solutions over the years that transitioning to a new WMS was almost unaffordable and they had yet to identify a viable alternative.
However, their largest concern was that the custom code behind their homegrown solutions had been developed over a period of 20 years – and now they were down to just a few team members with sufficient technical knowledge to support their existing, customized AS/400 systems. They also indicated that the anticipated retirement of the few trusted and experienced team members would force some hard business decisions in the next 12-18 months.
Now, I knew their AS/400 system was enhanced over the years, but I wanted to understand a little more about the skills of their team. The business indicated that 90% of the custom-developed capabilities for their ERP was written in RPG. This is very typical for most AS/400 environments, but a skill that even IBM would agree is not a skillset that many twenty or thirty-somethings have on their resumes.
Today, there are more than 100,000 active AS/400 customers and a large number of those companies are in manufacturing and distribution. This got me thinking about the stress that these businesses are operating under: How do you advance your operation when the few people who can keep your systems operational could walk out the door if they knew their career supporting their AS/400 baby would end within 18 months?
We must keep the big picture in mind. While there are concerns when it comes to the aging workforce and the AS/400, there are opportunities to move business forward and leverage existing expertise. The company I met with felt the same way. They had worked through the emotional hurdles and, with the help of team discussions, were confident they would be able to protect their loyal and skilled team members, while advancing their operation.
However, the technical hurdles remain. My response to this executive and his business? The first step is not to replace AS/400, but to replace the homegrown WMS system with a commercial option that can run on AS/400 and Windows, enabling a smooth server transition when the time is right. This enables the company to modernize their supply chain operations, including adding game changers like direct store delivery, without touching other elements of their homegrown ERP systems on AS/400. Their IT team would also still retain their jobs and the company would have time to optimize its future IT approach by training staff on newer programming languages.
This executive now has a plan that gives his organization a smart roadmap to the future, while protecting the extensive domain knowledge from leaving their business. This is just the story of one AS/400 user, but it illustrates that there are viable paths forward, even in the face of potential talent shortages.