Continuing Education: What’s on the Menu?
No matter how skilled or credentialed, today’s supply chain managers are hungry to learn—and want a variety of options to choose from. With the marketplace growing more complex, continuing education professionals are cooking up new programs and remaking old standbys.
A mere two decades ago, you didn’t need a lot of specialized credentials to embark on a supply chain career. “Companies just looked to hire smart people,” says Gregory Maloney of the Ryder Center for Supply Chain Management at Miami’s Florida International University (FIU). “They knew they could teach employees the skills they needed.”
Today, smart people are as coveted as ever, but it’s a given that they need opportunities to learn outside their day-to-day jobs. And increasingly, their employers are ensuring that they get that opportunity.
“Corporate investment in supply chain continuing education is definitely on the rise, because companies see direct impact to their bottom-line profitability,” says Lisa Sallstrom, a vice president responsible for certification and membership at professional association APICS. “They’re able to make the tie between educated, productive employees and the impact that has on supply chain efficiency and effectiveness.”
With demand for continuing education on the rise, universities, colleges, and associations have recently unveiled new programs and initiatives. They’ve also revamped some old standbys. Just as important, they’re tailoring curricula to help newcomers to the profession get up to speed and veterans optimize their know-how.
Keeping Up With New Insights
In today’s complex marketplace, supply chain managers need to embrace ongoing, career-long learning—for themselves and their direct reports.
“We are seeing more and more enterprise-wide employee training,” says Sallstrom. That’s largely because corporations and department supervisors want to raise the level of productivity across the entire organization. They think one way to do so is to ensure that their teams are trained consistently.
That’s the idea driving the newly launched Association for Supply Chain Management (ASCM), an outgrowth of APICS’ 60-plus years of logistics education programming. Introduced to the logistics community in September 2018, the ASCM focuses on driving innovation by sharing “the newest insights on all aspects of supply chain.”
To that end, the ASCM has created the Supply Chain Learning Center, which is expected to kick into high gear in early 2019. At full speed, it will offer everything from recorded webinars and online courses to onsite training seminars. Emphasis on onsite. That reduces reliance on a problematic paradigm, in which employees are dispatched to an off-site training in hopes they’ll return to the workplace and spread around their newly acquired knowledge.
The ASCM’s Supply Chain Principles on Demand offerings, meanwhile, are geared toward people who need to update their skills or cross-train for newly acquired responsibilities. A Supply Chain Leadership on Demand sequence develops the people skills and resiliency needed for directing organizational progress.
Programs like these make it easier for corporations to weave instruction throughout the enterprise. And that’s important, Sallstrom says, because it helps ensure that everyone is on the same page, using the same terminology and practicing the same concepts.
“Having a consistent vocabulary through the enterprise is so important,” she explains. “People can get tripped up on even common words.”
As the ASCM evolves, Sallstrom expects it will explore everything from tried-and-true foundations to emerging topics—artificial intelligence, for example, or the Internet of Things and sustainable practices. Regardless, ASCM will present the information in a variety of ways, allowing for self-directed study or group exchanges of ideas and information.
Soft Skills for a Networked Supply Chain
Throughout her years in supply chain education, Mary Long, managing director at the Global Supply Chain Forum at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, has held countless conversations with industry leaders. Time and again, they beat a particular drum with gusto: “One clear message is that their best candidates are equally comfortable with people and data,” she says.
“Today’s corporate executives understand that supply chains swim in tons of data,” Long says. “But they also understand that data and analytics only get you so far. You have to also engage with people, whether that’s asking great questions of your suppliers, asking great questions of your customers, or asking great questions of your team members.”
The people skills—among them, leadership, communication, and negotiation—can be the hardest to teach. But, in the networked, as opposed to hierarchical, environment that characterizes today’s market-savvy businesses, “these are skills that people have to learn to be more trusted leaders,” she explains.
FIU’s Gregory Maloney echoes Long’s observations about industry’s interest in different skills. He got a similar message when helping to design FIU’s recently debuted Master of Science program in logistics and supply chain management, the first such program in Florida, where supply chain studies typically are the purview of engineering programs.
“As we developed this program, we talked to a lot of companies across the country,” Maloney says. “It was interesting that they told us that within logistics and supply chain what they need now is some of the ‘soft’ skills.”
With those soft skills in mind, FIU devised a program that puts the expected heavy emphasis on optimizing technology and data, but also gives prime time to the art of negotiations, the essentials of marketing, and the craft of building business relationships with professionals from different cultures and countries.
Building relationships across cultures and countries is increasingly important in the Florida marketplace, says Ron Mesia, executive director of FIU’s Ryder Center for Supply Chain Management and an architect of the new master’s program. Because Miami is a gateway to Central and South America, the curriculum is fused “with a Latin American flavor,” he says, ensuring that supply chain managers can handle the technicalities of customs in, say, Costa Rica while nurturing a beneficial relationship with a business partner in Santiago.
So far, Maloney says, Florida’s supply chain talent pool is welcoming the opportunity to plunge into this medley of courses. “When we conduct informational sessions for this program, we can barely find space in the room for everybody,” he says.
Online Courses Adjust to Learning Styles
Many university-level certificate and degree programs—FIU’s among them—require that students come to campus for face-to-face interaction. That’s the best way for a professor to gauge whether a student has grasped a difficult concept, Maloney notes.
But more and more programs are offering hybrid programs that blend in-person interaction with online instruction. In fact, “the biggest trend in continuing supply chain education is to provide online courses,” says Nancy Taylor, director of the master’s program in supply chain management at Michigan State University’s Broad College of Business.
That’s because many busy professionals don’t have time for traditional delivery platforms. Whether they are mid-career millennials just starting families or older professionals changing career tracks, they need fast-paced programs that they can complete remotely.
Taylor’s own program, in existence for about 15 years, is “a combination of on site, in person, and online,” she says. Over the course of 20 months, the cohort of students comes to campus for occasional three-day weekends, which allows them to get to know faculty members and their classmates. Between these campus visits, students work remotely, exchanging ideas and questions online.
Professor David Closs, an architect of the MSU program who has expertise in logistics operations and planning, considers online education a boon to professionals who need flexibility in their lives. The programs that work best, he points out, rely on a few best practices to make the experience friendly and effective.
Too many online programs err by plopping existing curricula and existing syllabi into a digital environment. Worse, they fail to customize instruction for the online attention span. It’s not uncommon, Closs notes, for an online program to require students to sit through hours-long YouTube videos of classroom lectures.
Recognizing that this isn’t conducive to learning, many college and university programs have begun partnering with an outside company that understands the online universe. For example, MSU’s online supply chain master’s program works with Tampa-based Bisk, which employs instructional designers who can help a professor distill complex points into user-friendly presentations.
“When you create education programs for an online setting,” Closs says, “you have to think differently.”
Whether you’re just launching a supply chain career or looking to boost your skillset, there is a lot to learn and a lot of ways to learn it.
Serving Up Today’s Specials
While degree and certificate programs can provide the latest thinking on everything from enterprise resource planning to storage life-cycle policy, other critical topics are still making their way on to the syllabus. Depending on your responsibilities and aspirations, it makes sense to start tracking some emerging topics now, whether by reading the business press or engaging in what’s-up chats at networking events.
- Artificial intelligence, autonomous systems, and robotics
Self-driving vehicles, robots, and the automated warehouse are on the way. Savvy managers will want to start thinking about how this will affect everything from worksite culture to employee morale and staff dynamics. After all, these technologies may replace some workers, while others will have to interact with them.
- Blockchain fundamentals
Offering what the Brookings Institution describes as a “secure transaction ledger database,” blockchain makes sense for some organizations and no sense for others. Learn as much as you can, so “you can logically think through the value proposition of blockchain,” suggests David Closs, a professor at Michigan State University’s Broad College of Business.
Lisa Sallstrom, a vice president responsible for certification and membership at APICS, sees eco-awareness as a critical part of the supply chain manager’s strategic outlook. “Consumers are becoming more conscious of and demanding sustainable business practices,” she says.
With that in mind, the newly formed Association for Supply Chain Management, an outgrowth of APICS, has created the SCOR-E (Supply Chain Operations Reference for Enterprises) designation for corporations. It aims to raise the bar on ecological, as well as ethical and economic, practices. That means expertise in, or at least familiarity with, the circular economy, climate strategy, energy use, water and waste, material usage, and product life-cycle stewardship.
- The Internet of Things (networked systems)
A networked approach to supply chain requires a different skill set and mindset. “When supply chains are networked, you need to be able to embrace data analytics and a facts-are-friendly approach,” says Mary Long, managing director of the Global Supply Chain Forum at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. “Everybody can see your data. You can’t hold it back and piecemeal it out.” What’s more, when other entities within an organization have access to supply chain data, they’re likely to have different interpretations of it. These could well inform decision making.