December 2011 | Commentary | In Perspective

The Invisible Discipline

Tags: Education & Careers, Supply Chain Management

For all of its name recognition, supply chain management can be almost invisible within an organization.

Henry Ford's preference for vertically integrated manufacturing led him to say that the manufacturing process begins at the moment the raw material is removed from the earth and ends when the finished product is delivered to the customer. He owned most of those processes and, as a consequence, had near-total control over his supply chain. That was in 1915.

Henry Ford wasn't the first to model the supply chain and consider the impact of its various components and business disciplines. We can look farther back to Adam Smith and his pivotal 1776 work, The Wealth of Nations. In the course of a few pages, you can extract a description of the supply chain for a "wollen coat" worn by the common laborer. Smith also describes the supply chains supporting that supply chain—referring to the ships, ropes, rigging, and sails—carrying some of the goods.

Smith argues for economically linking all the goods that must be purchased and consumed in the creation of the ocean vessel trade, which, in part, supports the textile trade that produces the coat on the average man's back. He stacks supply chain upon supply chain.

There are earlier examples or models. But the point should be sufficiently clear that supply chains aren't a new concept. And managing the portions of a supply chain that are critical to your enterprise is also nothing new. But, even with the sophisticated tools available to today's manufacturing and retail businesses, we struggle to optimize supply chain flows. (Insert your favorite illustration of pipes or arrows showing goods, information, and capital moving along a horizontal continuum.)

Presenting a clear view of supply chain management as a business discipline extends to higher education, too. In fact, some academics are still debating whether to grant SCM the status of a business discipline at all.

As a faculty member of the Operations and Supply Chain Management Department, Monte Ahuja College of Business at Cleveland State University, I face that challenge at the beginning of each semester. One goal is to overcome the bias toward viewing supply chain management as an extension of logistics, procurement, manufacturing, or any other discipline that wants to claim it. University departments are no different. Where supply chain management is taught can determine how it is taught.

One popular view is that supply chain leaders bring their strengths in specific vertical disciplines such as logistics and procurement, and add a fundamental knowledge of the other core disciplines. Strong analytical and leadership skills then combine in that individual's ability to determine the best strategy and tactics to support overall business objectives—and to then lead the organization to accomplish those goals.

If that sounds like a tall order for an individual business leader to fill, it is an even greater challenge for the education system that must train our new supply chain leaders.