Today’s Supply Chain Education: It’s All in Your Head
The list of competencies employers seek when they recruit supply chain professionals keeps growing longer and more complex. Here's how degree-granting programs keep pace, and enable well-rounded graduates to fill prime positions.
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As corporate leaders discover the competitive power of a well-run supply chain, they've started looking for a new kind of supply chain professional. It's not enough to know logistics, or procurement, or demand planning inside out. The 21st century practitioner needs to grasp all the links in the chain, from raw materials through finished product and final delivery.
That's not all employers want. They also are looking for supply chain practitioners who communicate well with colleagues in sales, marketing, finance, and other departments; know how to use data analytics and modeling tools; understand sustainability and social responsibility; excel at soft skills such as collaboration and negotiation; and have the international savvy to succeed in a global economy.
Those are big shoes to fill. No one knows that better than directors of college and university programs that prepare graduates to step into supply chain management roles.
"If we listened to our advisory board, and took to the letter every skill they want our undergraduates to have, we'd have to offer a 15-year program," says Shay Scott, managing director of the Global Supply Chain Institute at the University of Tennessee (UT), Knoxville.
No degree-granting program can promise that all its graduates will deliver all items on every supply chain executive's wish list. But the people who run those programs, on both the undergraduate and graduate level, are working hard to give employers what they want.
Some programs respond to expanding industry needs by enlarging their focus.
For example, at the University of San Diego (USD), the Master of Science in Supply Chain Management curriculum was designed to emphasize sourcing. But employers who sent students to the two-year program said they wanted employees to understand the supply chain from end-to-end and around the world. "So we added subjects such as logistics, and a strong international component," says Lauren Lukens, director of the USD program.
UT has a similar story, although it starts at a different point in the chain. "Ten years ago, UT primarily offered a logistics program," says Scott. Today, though, companies look for employees with wider expertise. So UT also has adjusted.
"Through a deliberate shift in strategy, and a significant change in staffing and team players, we have converted to a broad-based supply chain program," says Scott, whose institution offers both undergraduate and graduate degrees.
That trend of cultivating broader skills doesn't stop with the supply chain.
The path a product travels from sourcing to production to the marketplace also touches on disciplines such as marketing, finance, and accounting. "Employees have to understand processes across functional areas," says Roby Thomas, program director for the Master in Supply Chain Management at Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Ill. That's why Elmhurst organizes its program around processes, not functions.
Supply chain professionals today work with colleagues throughout the organization. "They need to be able to connect supply chain with the language they understand," says Ravi Anupindi, professor of supply chain management and faculty director of the Master of Supply Chain Management Program at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
One way Michigan prepares students for interdisciplinary collaboration is through direct contact. Students in the supply chain program may take electives such as marketing or negotiation in the Master of Business Administration (MBA) program. MBA students may also take supply chain electives. "Supply chain students and MBA students mix in the same classroom," Anupindi says. Team projects that unite students from both programs offer opportunities for cross-fertilization.
USD's two-year MS program—taught mainly online, but with five on-campus modules as well—offers a course on finance and risk management. "The intention is to help students understand not only how these areas affect their positions, but also how to interact with the finance departments within their companies and what might be important to those players," Lukens says.
The program used to include a one-unit marketing course, but USD now integrates marketing-related content into several other classes. "Marketing hits so many different points of the supply chain, it wasn't fair to offer a one-unit course that barely skimmed the surface of what marketing means for supply chain professionals," Lukens says.
Like their peers in just about any other business discipline, students aiming for supply chain careers must learn to extract business knowledge from data. Thanks especially to the rise of social media, companies today collect masses of data on customers' shopping and buying habits.
Internal business systems add to the glut. "The optimization technology used in the supply chain also collects tremendous amounts of data," says Gary LaPoint, professor of supply chain practice at Syracuse University. "Companies sometimes don't know what to do with it all."
Syracuse helps students in its undergraduate and graduate supply chain programs learn to make good use of data analytics software, starting with Microsoft Excel and Access. "We're also introducing other statistical packages, such as R, Google Analytics, Tableau, and Mini-Tab," says LaPoint. A growing number of undergraduates double-major in supply chain management and information studies, he adds.
With easier, more intuitive analytics tools available today, companies can make better use of data from sources such as enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems. "That is one big area of change we've seen, and something we've put a lot more focus on in our curriculum," says Thomas.
Along with using big data to gain new insights, supply chain students learn to use advanced technology to test different options before making decisions. "Students are being exposed to more modeling techniques, simulation, and gaming," says Gary Gittings, director of the online graduate programs in supply chain management at Penn State University. Recent advances in technology allow students to work on robust problems in scenarios that duplicate conditions they would face in the workplace.
Undergraduate and masters-level students at UT make heavy use of simulation software. Students might employ it to run a virtual business for three years, making hundreds of decisions along the way. "They get the chance to put their learning into action, and see how it impacts the business's financial results," Scott says.
Such exercises become increasingly important as more corporations emphasize supply chains as strategic assets. "The undergrads are entering a world where they need to be able to explain that the greatest value lies in the interaction between different areas of the supply chain," Scott says.
Within the online American Public University System, professors in the Transportation and Logistics Management program created an open forum for discussing new technologies that could reshape the industry.
"A lot of discussion revolves around 3D printing, and unmanned aerial vehicles or drones," says Stacey Little, the program's director. One instructor who teaches a course on air transportation plans to start a forum for discussing the implications of product delivery by drone, such as how the practice might affect government regulation of air space.
3D printing entered the supply chain curriculum at Penn State, too. "We're not focused too much on making cool key chains," says John Jordan, clinical professor of supply chain and information systems. "We're more concerned with the impact of making items on site rather than moving mass-produced finished goods."
The use of 3D printing for customized products, such as prosthetics, will force the industry to rethink inventory management. "What does the warehouse look like for SKUs of one? We don't know—it's all new," Jordan says. Those are the kinds of questions he raises with his students.
While supply chain professionals still concentrate on how to deliver excellent products as efficiently as possible, they also keep an eye on other values. "We're beginning to see a focus on social and environmental issues," says Anupindi. "This is more prominent in some industries than in others, but it will become more important."
What impact does a company make on the environment when it sources materials, or manufactures and delivers product? Can it guarantee that its suppliers don't operate sweat shops, employ child labor, or use conflict minerals?
In many companies, two separate organizations look after those issues, one charged with sustainability and the other with corporate responsibility, Anupindi says. Neither of those teams talks to the supply chain organization. To nurture professionals who can integrate all three concerns, Michigan's MS program weaves questions of sustainability and ethics into its courses on sourcing and other relevant topics. "The case studies we have developed also highlight the role of engaging with other stakeholders," Anupindi says.
At Penn State, Jordan spends one week covering questions of product provenance and supply chain transparency. Those are becoming important issues at many companies. "If marketing makes a public commitment to going conflict-free, or fair trade, or cruelty-free for your supply base, somebody has to document that commitment," he says.
On paper, supply chain management might look like a numbers-heavy discipline with an emphasis on engineering and information science. But most successful supply chain professionals are good at working with people. "Some critically needed skill sets are the abilities to communicate and develop collaborative relationships," Gittings says.
For the rising generation of supply chain practitioners, lessons in "soft" business skills might start with a primer on old-school communication. "One challenge we face is getting students out of the mindset that everything is done with an email or text message," says LaPoint. Students working on projects with local businesses, or preparing for internships, must learn it's often more effective to pop into someone's office, or make a phone call, than to send a text.
At Syracuse, many lessons on the softer side of supply chain management come up informally in the classroom. "Students also learn a lot by attending meetings at the businesses where projects are being implemented," says LaPoint.
Besides the ability to work with people in a business setting, the supply chain profession requires other skills you can't pick up from textbooks. "Employers are looking for logistics professionals who embrace change, are flexible, and are strong decision makers," says Little.
Unfortunately, most people aren't wired to deal with uncertainty and ambiguity. "Many students come in asking, 'How long will it take to do the homework?' or 'How many papers do we have to write, and how long do you want them to be?'" Little adds. "Simple answers to those questions don't prepare students for workplace realities."
To address that concern, professors in the APUS Transportation and Logistics program sometimes give open-ended assignments based on scenarios with limited information. "We want students to make assumptions, and tell us what data they need, where they can get it, and what they need to make the decision," Little says.
Instructors also let students decide how long a paper should be to fulfill the assignment. "It is a good exercise to prepare them for what will happen out in the world," she adds.
Because many supply chains today cross international borders, companies also want employees who operate with ease on the global stage.
"We're seeing companies that are interested in students with language skills," says LaPoint. "As a result, more students are taking language classes on campus."
Many students hone their global skills by studying abroad. That opportunity is so important that even the mostly online MS program at USD will soon offer an overseas version of the international negotiations class that students otherwise take in San Diego.
"The same faculty who teach this on campus also teach abroad," says Lukens. "The faculty are in Asia and Europe every year." Soon, supply chain students will have the option to join one of those international sojourns.
Although APUS doesn't provide an international experience, it does offer courses focused on the international supply chain. Not only must students understand that people in different cultures conduct business in different ways, but they must also consider how transportation infrastructure differs from country to country. "In the United States, it's easy to get a product from Point A to Point B," Little says. "But go to Haiti and try to do the same thing."
Beyond content-specific knowledge, students headed for supply chain careers need general-purpose management skills. "They have to be adept business people who can influence well, work on teams, and communicate in ways that weren't expected from graduates in predecessor fields, such as transportation, 20 years ago," says Scott.
That's why UT is launching a "Business Passport" certification program designed to help undergraduates majoring in supply chain and other fields polish their professional abilities. On the graduate level, the Executive MBA for the Global Supply Chain program coaches its students—most of whom are mid-career professionals—on how to make presentations and influence others.
"They learn to speak the language of business—how to communicate with the chief financial officer, and how to talk about working capital and internal rates of return without using traditional supply chain words," says Scott.
To teach the crucial business skill of networking, the Transportation and Logistics Management programs at APUS encourage far-flung online classmates to get acquainted. "We set up Facebook and LinkedIn pages for our program," Little says. Instructors also make a point of connecting students who express similar interests, or who work in different locations for the same companies. The networks students build in class could eventually help them in the business world, she adds.
The Real World
While using the classroom to prepare students for the "real world," many supply chain programs either encourage or require students to apply their new knowledge in actual business settings. At Elmhurst College, for example, many undergraduate supply chain majors do internships. "A good network of Chicago companies keep coming back for our interns," Thomas notes.
Elmhurst's graduate students in supply chain management, most of whom are working professionals, spend the second year of the program conducting capstone projects, focused on issues at their own firms.
"They identify a problem and write a proposal," Thomas says. "When the proposal is done, they write a thesis based on the project and do a presentation. Some of these projects have saved millions of dollars at companies such as Bosch, Walgreens, Motorola, and Kraft, as well as medium-sized and smaller companies."
Michigan's program places teams of two or three supply chain and MBA students in 14-week summer internships run by the school's Tauber Institute of Global Operations. Working with one faculty advisor from the business school, and one from the school of engineering, each team conducts a project for its sponsor corporation, with a list of specific deliverables. In the fall, teams present the results to judges drawn from the corporate world in a one-day competition called "Spotlight!"
Both students and faculty learn a great deal from the experience. "We have converted some of those engagements into case studies we use in class," says Anupindi. Corporate sponsors use the competition to size up potential recruits.
Besides sponsoring students for internships and projects, corporate partners work with supply chain programs to keep curricula synched with their needs.
Often, that relationship includes a corporate advisory council. At USD, the MS program works with the board of the Supply Chain Management Institute, which draws members from about 25 companies. "I frequently touch base with all the members," says Lukens. "When we were going through our curriculum review, they all took part."
Directors of the supply chain programs at Syracuse hold a formal meeting each spring and fall with an advisory board that represents sectors as diverse as manufacturing, transportation, consulting, and athletics. They also hold a monthly teleconference.
"We ask them what is going on in their industries," says LaPoint. Board members provide feedback on skill sets that students require, and offer projects for teams of students to work on.
At Elmhurst College, the classroom is filled with a great deal of corporate expertise. "About half our faculty are people from industry," says Thomas. The school holds ongoing conversations with supply chain executives at companies in the Chicago area, such as Walgreens, where the vice president of supply chain operations is an Elmhurst alumnus.
"We also have a yearly review," says Thomas. "A team from Elmhurst College and from industry exchange ideas and see how we can incorporate those into the appropriate classes."
Specifications for the ideal supply chain keep evolving. The shoes that new graduates must fill in their jobs will only keep getting larger. But supply chain programs and their industry partners are doing all they can to ensure that when students enter or return to the corporate world, they are laced up and ready to run.