Logistics Education: Ready for the World

Tags: Education & Careers, Global Logistics

Globe levitating between hands

With a focus on international operations, logistics students and professionals prepare to manage complex global supply chains.

According to conventional wisdom, ever-smarter technology and the rapid pace of innovation are creating a smaller world. For supply chain managers, that smaller world means a larger reach—a global supply chain characterized by what John Fowler, chairman of the supply chain management department at the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University (ASU), calls "lots of tentacles."

As Fowler sees it, the supply chain's many tentacles introduce a host of new and emerging logistics and operational challenges, not to mention perplexing ethical quandaries and cultural conundrums. "If you are doing business internationally, you need a broader knowledge base," he says.

And even if you're not doing business internationally, you might as well prepare for it. Chances are, it's in your future.

Paul Dittman, executive director of the Global Supply Chain Institute at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, agrees. "It's rare to find a supply chain that isn't global," he notes.

The global supply chain is increasingly a catalyst for career opportunity, thanks to developments such as the Panama Canal expansion and pending free trade agreements. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 20-percent increase in supply chain jobs in coming years, so now is a great time for aspiring and established logistics professionals to enhance their global supply chain skills.

Attuned to the Global Marketplace

The knowledge and skill base required of anyone working within a global supply chain includes everything from business analytics, risk analysis, and transportation security to trans-national regulations and cross-cultural negotiations.

If you source parts in China, it pays to understand its regulatory environment, banking system, and labor laws. If you contract with a supplier in Brazil or Chile, it's essential to appreciate business and cultural mores—even if you're negotiating by email, but especially if you're talking business over a meal.

"In any successful global supply chain, professionals should be able to work in a process-oriented team environment, possess a basic understanding of different market segments and their supply chain requirements, and understand current import and export compliance rules and regulations," says Ken Black, general manager of logistics at Crowley Maritime Corp., a marine transportation and logistics company headquartered in Jacksonville, Fla.

No mere mortal is likely to master all the complexities associated with the global supply chain. But, "supply chain managers should periodically sharpen the basic tools in their toolbox, including forecasting, operations research, and logistics management," says James Haug, director of the Logistics Center at Virginia-based Longwood University. They should also add new tools as time permits.

Which tools will depend on specific business challenges and individual career goals.

"If you have been out of school for 10 years, search out specific areas your company's leadership wants you to focus on," says Haug. "A multinational beverage purveyor, for example, might want its supply chain professionals to focus on sustainability issues, while a machine manufacturer might need expertise translating newly mined data into useful information."

In keeping with his company's emphasis on professional growth, Robert McIntosh conducted an extensive review of available programs before settling on a final choice. As executive director of global logistics and fulfillment for Texas-based computer technology company Dell Inc., McIntosh handles fulfillment and logistics for the Americas, including North America, Argentina, and Chile. Business in the Americas accounts for half of Dell's deliveries, so his responsibilities are pressing. Dell asks that he respond to those responsibilities by acquiring new skills and knowledge. "The company expects that employees will learn and grow," he says.

McIntosh believed he needed formal training in finance and economics, as well as advanced understanding of supply chain dynamics. He was less interested in programs that emphasized the supply chain's engineering challenges. His superiors, meanwhile, encouraged him to find an education option that enhanced his executive skill set and would "ramp very quickly." With these priorities in mind, he chose an executive MBA program with a supply chain emphasis.

One Size Doesn't Fit All

Once individual and company priorities are determined, Haug advises supply chain managers to look for programs that not only address the specified areas of interest, but also complement work schedules and learning styles. Many mid-career professionals don't want to return to the classroom; others prize experiential opportunities over textbook learning.

The best programs draw on industry to shape curriculum. And as challenges mount, industry is increasingly interested in influencing supply chain education. After all, companies are looking to the global supply chain—and its talent pool—for cost-cutting and revenue-generating opportunities.

ASU asks high-level corporate representatives what they think the curriculum should cover. Several years ago, business advisers were recommending additional training in business analytics. They wanted people capable of data-driven decision-making—mining data and deploying it. "The key challenge is turning data into information," he adds.

Today, companies are also seeking employees with the skills and knowledge to help seamlessly integrate supply chain functions and logistics priorities into overall business operations. They want a logistics team that can ensure raw materials from different parts of the globe arrive at a factory just when they're needed—not a moment too soon or too late.

Longwood University's Logistics Center also draws on business collaboration to develop programs for students. It serves as an academic research partner to the Commonwealth Center for Advanced Logistics Systems (CCALS), an organization founded to "transform industry by improving the complex system of technological, mechanical, and human factors that enable logistics."

"The center is an environment where industry and academics can work together," says Haug.

In addition to acquiring specialized knowledge, today's supply chain managers are expected to play an expanded role within the company. "They not only have to excel in supply chain disciplines, but also operate on a higher plane," Dittman explains. "They have to speak the CEO's language."

That means supply chain managers must be prepared to think of their operations in terms of shareholder value and market share. They must be able to educate everyone from their financial team to marketing managers about the global supply chain's challenges and opportunities. And they must be able to make a case for their seat at the table when the company formulates strategic plans.

That's especially true when new products are under design and development. Supply chain managers can alert engineers to resource and supply options from across the globe. Because they understand what is happening on the factory floor, they can ward off problems related to untimely product releases or unrealistic production schedules. But they can only do so if they are at the right meetings, and regarded as professionals within the big picture.

Executive Orders

The demand for executive-level training that prepares supply chain professionals for these roles is driving curriculum content and program development at a host of universities. The University of Tennessee at Knoxville, for example, introduced an executive MBA (EMBA) with a global supply chain emphasis. It's the program that captured McIntosh's interest, and best suited his company's vision.

The first cohort of EMBA students—who come from an array of companies in Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and North America—began classes in January 2013 and will complete them by year's end. Along the way, the 17 students will experience a curriculum that is about 60 percent business foundation and 40 percent supply chain management. Core competencies in global supply chain management include global business acumen and leadership; transformational capabilities; integrated business planning and risk management; and mastery of the integrated value chain.

Although the program includes 24 online sessions throughout the year, its distinguishing component is a set of two two-week domestic residencies in Knoxville that kick off and conclude the program, as well as four international residencies that take students to Paris and Budapest in late spring, and Singapore and Shanghai in late summer. There, they take classes from international faculty, experience another country's supply chain infrastructure firsthand, and immerse themselves in different cultures.

The international residencies offer students the chance to see how supply chain principles are applied in different markets. They also learn about challenges specific to these markets—information that could inform decision-making back home.

The time spent in Knoxville and overseas offers other advantages as well. McIntosh says he benefits from getting to know other students. The cohort provides the perfect forum for exchanging experiences with people from non-competing companies. Outside of class, he contacts peers from Fortune 50 companies to share information about best practices.

"Before I started the program, I didn't have this kind of professional network," says McIntosh.

Another key component of the EMBA offers a benefit to the students' employers. "Each student has to complete a company project—known as the Organizational Action Project (OAP)—under the guidance of a faculty adviser," says David Ecklund, the EMBA's director. At minimum, the OAP must result in a $1-million benefit to the firm.

McIntosh's OAP complements his responsibilities related to Dell's global reverse supply chain, which supports remanufacturing computers returned by customers.

To optimize Dell's reverse chain, he will examine the procurement processes associated with this endeavor. He'll also subject the reverse chain to some fundamental questions: Is the company repairing some systems it should retire and scrap? Can repair parts be sourced differently? Can upstream costs be cut?

The idea for this project came from class lessons and discussions. "The University of Tennessee really pushes an end-to-end supply chain view," McIntosh notes. "It's not just supply chain planning and design."

Still other institutions are acting on the assumption that everyone in global business—accountants, marketing managers, and human resources professionals —needs some understanding of the supply chain. With that in mind, they're blending supply chain basics and international perspectives into regular MBA and certificate programs. And students are appreciative—even those who may never visit a warehouse or DC.

Take Lauren Gabor, junior list services coordinator at Virginia-based Nexus Direct. Gabor wants a career in international business. To that end, she pursued an MBA from Longwood University. During a 10-day university-affiliated trip to China, she made a stop in Ningbo to tour a flag factory that supplies Evergreen Enterprises, a Virginia company that designs, manufactures, and markets decorative items.

The experience opened her eyes to everything from the turnaround time associated with producing and delivering seasonal items to the cultural sophistication required all along the global supply chain. For example, when meeting factory officials, she realized that casual American behaviors could be regarded as offensive. To take a proffered business card and stuff it in a pocket was tantamount to an insult. "Respect was a big issue," she says, noting that disrespect could taint a valued relationship.

Supply chain professionals who want to acquire new skills or refresh old ones have an array of options. At universities and colleges across the country, they can choose from degree or certificate programs, from online or classroom options, and from programs that focus heavily on the supply chain or integrate it into other coursework. Mid-career managers can also choose to enroll in programs that mix Web and classroom experiences with team projects and travel.

Even within one institution, the choices can be daunting. For example, Arizona State University offers a mix of options, including an MBA with a supply chain management focus, a master of science in business analytics, and a graduate supply chain management certificate. The school is also developing a master of science in supply chain management and engineering.

Like their counterparts at other institutions, ASU's certificate programs offer a mix of foundational and advanced knowledge. And, in keeping with many other certificate programs, they allow students to work at their own pace. Highly motivated students can polish off the coursework in one year. Students with demanding schedules can take as long as six years to complete the certificate.

Master's programs tend to be more structured. Students enroll with a cohort of other professionals, with whom they advance through the curriculum. Many of these programs are structured to make team projects and student interaction a big part of the experience. "You'll learn a lot from the faculty," Fowler says, "but you'll also learn from the other students."

At ASU, the MBA with a supply chain management focus, delivered online, is targeted largely at students with three to five years of management experience. Core courses focus on supply chain management, operations, and logistics, while electives address everything from supply chain design and organization to strategic procurement and the purchasing management process on a global basis.

Professors provide learning frameworks that help professionals contend with their specific challenges. For example, they learn how to quantify the risks associated with working in different markets. Just as important, they learn how other countries regulate their businesses and conduct trade.

ASU's master of science in business analytics teaches students how to derive value from data and lead data-driven analyses—skills essential to creating a business advantage in a global marketplace. Meanwhile, the master of science in supply chain management and engineering, also offered online, familiarizes students with state-of-the-art tools for analyzing, controlling, and optimizing today's supply chains.

Right Tools for the Job

Like ASU, Longwood University aims to offer programs that provide working and would-be logistics executives with tools they can adapt to individual job sites. For example, Longwood's new four-course certificate program and its forthcoming MBA with a supply chain endorsement draw upon case studies, modeling, and simulation to help in risk analysis—an essential component of any supply chain, but particularly the global chain.

"We emphasize these factors in our case studies," he says, noting that thorough risk analysis can help companies avoid everything from lawsuits to product recalls to embarrassments.

In both its certificate and MBA programs, Longwood aims to emphasize more than skills acquisition and knowledge development. The program also cultivates personal and interpersonal habits—listening, for example—that help supply chain managers negotiate the information overload associated with their jobs. The global supply chain doesn't just span oceans and continents—it also spans time zones, meaning the day may start with a 3 a.m. email demanding an immediate solution to a problem.

Given the pace of the global supply chain and its ever-unfolding challenges, Haug urges professionals to regard continuing education as "a time for solitude and reflection."

Think of it as a way to forestall burnout and recharge batteries. After all, he says, "In some ways, managing the global supply chain is about stamina."