E-tails of woe: A skills shakeout is inevitable as the food supply chain learns to master the web. Martin Thorley reports Nearly half of all traditional food industry management roles will change in the next five years as a direct result of web development, and employers cannot afford to ignore it. Human resource implications, rather than technical development, will be the limiting factor on progress, while the true impact of the web on the UK food chain will hit in the areas of ordering, procurement, manufacturing, stock control and marketing. Companies that fail to understand this, and the effects the web will have on traditional roles within the industry, will miss out on a revolution as big as the introduction of multiple retailing. And the rush for people to make it all happen has well and truly started. Demand from food suppliers and retailers for IT people who understand the web is nearly double that of a year ago, and rising. In fact, the efficiencies and cost savings the web will drive throughout the whole of a business's operation will make it impossible for companies who ignore it to compete. The internet will mean that traditional functions within the food industry that now take several hundred people to operate will take just tens and the opportunities open to progressively-minded people will be immense. At the moment, the big demand is for innovators who can marry the web with food retailing and supply. But soon the effects will be more dramatic as efficiencies start to bite. The infrastructure of the food chain could change beyond recognition and personnel requirements in virtually all areas will be affected. There simply won't be the same requirement for people to carry out administration and processing tasks because many of these will be largely automated by the web. The demand will be more for managers and senior executives who understand the processes and can sort out problems rather than people to carry out day to day functions. Traditional food industry experience will become less important, with the balance moving more towards people who can contribute to the development of such systems. A skills shake-out is inevitable. It's not only going to be a question of bringing in new people with the right knowledge because in many cases these simply don't exist. Much of the e-revolution will be driven by existing staff developing new skills and comprehension. Take the issue of promotions: traditionally, embarking on a promotion meant guessing demand ahead. Now by linking retailers and suppliers electronically, demand can be tracked almost on an hour-by-hour basis. Although there will probably not be as many dotcom entrepreneurs selling direct as anticipated, behind the scenes the way companies buy, manufacture and deliver is changing for ever and with that the roles of employees. The UK food industry could lead the field in Europe for adopting web technologies, but competing with other industry sectors for the best people to make it happen could be a problem. Larger production units combined with the strength of national multiples will allow the proposition of a web based infrastructure to be achieved here more quickly than in many other countries, while our focus on full traceability for food will also drive the issue. Within five years, the web could provide a seamless flow of information throughout the entire food supply chain, enabling retailers to trace the products on their shelves right back to the inputs that were applied by farmers in the fields. Ultimately, the challenge for the industry is not to let the internet take over completely from the human side of food production and selling. Food is much more than a commodity and the values attached to it are increasingly important. Automating the process so completely that the human side is lost will backfire on both retailers and suppliers. Martin Thorley is the chief executive of food industry recruitment and development specialist Merston Peters {{MANAGEMENT FEATURE }}