While technology has transformed fleet management from an art to a science, it has also created the risk that, ultimately, technology may “dumb down” the fleet managers of the future. In the past, fleet managers would personally perform the calculations and engage in the “cerebral sweat” to accomplish almost all fleet functions. Nowadays (and increasingly so in the future), sophisticated fleet management tools perform these calculations and analyses with the fleet manager only seeing the end result, not the process. I see this as a potential concern for future fleet managers, and so do others.
The trend of technological intrusion into all fleet management functions has occurred since the inception of the industry, but especially in the past four decades. The swell of smart technology will only proliferate in the coming years with machine learning artificial intelligence and the pervasiveness of vehicle connectivity data to enhance fleet operational efficiencies, increase worker productivity, and the ability to identify cost savings at an increasingly granular level. The question is whether these technologies will dumb down the fleet management profession and the field workers operating fleet assets? Will further technological solutions create a homogeneous environment with less variability of fleet performance?
Since software as a service (SaaS) platforms are increasingly developing solutions to take the administrative burden off of their clients, the fleet manager has fewer opportunities to observe first-hand operational issues or efficiencies. They run the fleet by exception and metrics benchmarking using their fleet dashboards on their computer screens and refer to reports supplied by vendors with increasingly granular drill-down capabilities. Thus, the new fleet manager becomes dependent on fleet service providers to provide strategic ideas and direction because he or she will not have the day-to-day contact with the work of managing a fleet.
The dependence on technology offers a cautionary tale about the future of the fleet manager position. For instance, if a fleet manager is dependent on managing a fleet by exception and summary reports, does it position him or her to truly be strategic in their thinking? Similar to the outsourcing of product manufacturing over the past several decades, in-house expertise is lost by not staying current with innovations in manufacturing processes because a company is no longer in the manufacturing business, but simply contract management. This can ultimately become a strategic deficit. A story about Apple illustrates this situation. According to a past news report, Apple was designing an iPhone that was extremely sophisticated and complex but the designers were not certain whether the product could be manufactured as designed. It had to go to the manufacturing outsourcer to see if they could develop a manufacturing system to build the phone. Although Apple is a highly innovative company, some would say this lack of manufacturing expertise is a strategic deficit. This could be similar to the fleet manager of the future, who may come up with strategic ideas but needs their outsourcer to determine whether the ideas are feasible to implement.
Technology is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, with the time constraints and lack of staffing resources, it’s very productive to have systems in place to pull the data and prepare the analyses. On the other hand, you lose some of the underlying knowledge on where those numbers come from and the in-depth knowledge of what the numbers mean. Often the only people who understand why business processes work the way they do are the people who designed the process in the first place and not the end-user.
The Counter Arguments
Fleet management has changed immeasurably since its inception due to the advances in technology, nonetheless, the fundamental principles have remained the same. The list of the positive impacts of technology far outweighs the disadvantages. There is a legitimate concern, however, about our growing over-dependence on technology. If you don’t think we’re too dependent on technology, watch what happens the next time there is a power outage, your server goes down, or you misplace your cell phone.
As the technology of the future becomes more intuitive and predictive, it ultimately poses the risk of diminishing the stature of the fleet manager by making technology the real value-added factor in fleet management, not the individual. The counterargument is that technology frees up the fleet managers to learn new skills in other related areas. Technology has indeed taken the fleet manager out of the day-to-day business of consolidating specifications for a selector, or managing many routine operations and transactions. As a result, technological tools haves allowed fleet managers to grow in other areas, such as analytics, forecasting, reporting, risk mitigation, logistics, benchmarking, and financial analyses that have helped them to navigate the complexities and uncertainties of today’s supply-disrupted fleet market. Technology allows fleet managers to be more granular in fleet decision-making. Technology gives us the capability and opportunity to drill down further than we could 20 years ago.
Regardless of your perspective on the impact of technology, one point is certain—if you don’t make an effort to continually expand your skillset, you run the risk making yourself obsolete. Nonetheless, you still need to understand the fundamentals.
Let me know what you think.