How to Pick the Most Effective Option for Supply Chain Education
Did you know that supply chains and wristwatches have two things in common?
First, their overall purpose is simple. For a watch, it is to tell the time. For the organisation with the supply chain, it is to satisfy more customers, more profitably to the organisation. Second, what goes on underneath the watch face or behind the top level supply chain dashboard can be very complex. A watch – a mechanical one at least – must be designed with all sorts of springs, wheels and weights to make it run just right: not too fast, not too slow. A supply chain must also be balanced and counter-balanced to avoid undesirable acceleration or deceleration in its different parts.
That is where the analogy stops: for a supply chain also continually changes as markets evolve and new technologies arrive. You can learn how a watch was made yesterday, but can you move fast enough to stay up to date with a supply chain that tomorrow will no longer be what it was today? Knowledge gaps widen on a daily basis when learning stops. Education must nonetheless fit in with business activities. What are the solutions?
The Triple Challenge of Supply Chain Learning
Supply chain managers and employees today have a direct impact on one of the most important sources of profit to an enterprise. Marketing slogans, products, services and even technologies now only offer transient advantage. Competitors can catch up too fast to stake a company’s future on these items alone. The supply chain is a different kettle of fish. It is more difficult to copy, because its optimisation depends on the internal structure, strengths and weaknesses of the company with the supply chain. No two companies start from the same point. No two companies look alike on the inside. If you get your supply chain right, you can build business advantage that others may rival, but cannot copy. Teaching and training people to get their supply chain roles right can therefore be a good return on investment, whether in terms of money, time or both.
Supply chain roles are only properly fulfilled when they take account of other supply chain roles too. A change that you make in one part of a supply chain will have an impact elsewhere as well. People making such changes need to know how they will also affect other parts of the supply chain, both upstream and downstream. A limited, narrow focus can lead to so-called solutions causing more problems in the whole supply chain than the ones they solve.
Effective education about making, running and fixing supply chains therefore presents a triple challenge. Supply chains run from one end of an enterprise, and change frequently. Education must supply the right mix of practice and theory. For sustainably good performance, supply chain teams need education across different, yet relevant dimensions. And all of this has to happen in a way that yields the most immediate benefits possible for supply chains that must carry on working, day in and day out.
What are the Supply Chain Staff Learning Options?
Supply chain education options depend on a person’s career stage and ambitions, and on an organisation’s needs. They include:
- Traditional education programmes
- Trainee programmes with an organisation or in an industry
- Learning on the job
- Specific supply chain certification programmes
- Pragmatic training that targets major issues and opportunities to improve.
We look at each option in turn below to see how well it suits different professional and personal profiles.
Traditional Supply Chain Education Programmes
These programmes often give comprehensive coverage of supply chain theory and principles. The advantages are that they are structured and help learners to make sense of a complex subject. They provide basic building blocks on which to construct models and understanding of supply chains. A typical cursus might cover the following:
- Supply chain strategy
- Supply chain design and management
- Key performance indicators and metrics
- Understanding and using supply chain analytics
- Demand forecasting
- Sales and operations planning
- Understanding and handling supply chain risk
- Use of technology to improve supply chain performance
- Supply chain trends
Whether or not other important aspects like outsourcing parts of a supply chain are covered depends on the course. Format and duration can vary. Some programmes are offered as year-long postgraduate courses, while others are available in an online, self-paced format. There may be an exam at the end or an assessment on coursework leading to a diploma. Attendance may be fulltime, part-time or according to the learner’s availability.
These courses often suffer from the same limitation, in that ‘the map is not the territory’. In other words, the insulated classroom environment may leave the student inadequately prepared for the rough and tumble of supply chains in real life. However, organisations with a longer term view may still find these courses to be a good investment. They can wait ‘downstream’ and attract newly-minted graduates with job offers. They can also hold out paid or subsidised study leave as a carrot to encourage existing employees to learn and develop for the good of the organisation.
Trainee Programmes with an Organisation or in an Industry
These programmes can improve on practical aspects that traditional learning course may find difficult to include. Trainees work within the context of a live, functioning supply chain. This adds a dimension that cannot be reproduced in classroom learning. Trainees may rotate through a variety of different supply chain functions such as manufacturing, logistics (warehousing and distribution), revenue management and sales.
The advantage for the organisation is the ability to tailor the trainee programme to produce an end result that matches its own needs. It also has greater visibility into its human resources and can more easily plan employee career development. Trainee programmes might be used for new hires with little or no work experience. They can also help employees moving from supply chain analyst to supply chain manager positions.
How well this works depends both on the trainees and on the quality of the programme. It may also take 6 – 24 months to ‘deliver’ a correctly trained person who begins the programme at the initial entry level.
Learning on the Job
Learning on the job has three main distinguishing features. It is highly oriented towards real life aspects of a supply chain. Learning time may vary significantly according to the employee, although proficiency usually requires years of on-the-job experience. Lastly, it is also often the default option. If an enterprise makes no other provision for training, then learning on the job is all that is left. The supply chain industry and the logistics sector in particular have been shaped by this, both to their advantage and disadvantage.
Learning on the job can be advantageous because:
- ‘What we must learn to do, we learn by doing’. Greek philosopher Aristotle’s insight of 2,400 years ago remains highly relevant. Nothing imprints on a learner’s memory and understanding like actually doing what has to be learnt.
- Employees see supply chain life as it really happens, ‘warts and all’. By comparison, trainees in trainee programmes may be shielded from some of the realities, and classroom students may still be clinging to their theoretical maps when the practical territory looks very different.
- It lets employees build up a valuable commodity – supply chain knowledge, which transcends theory, information or analytics to enhance judgment and results.
On the downside however, enterprises must contend with:
- An older or aging supply chain staff. More capable people will tend to be older. Attracting new employees or talent to replace those taking retirement may be a challenge.
- Incomplete education. Employees may continue to work in one area alone – for example, procurement, manufacturing, warehousing or transport management – but without getting the cross-pollination benefit of seeing how neighbouring departments work.
- Knowledge not passing on. If there is no mechanism for sharing it, it stays in the heads of the knowledgeable. It is valuable for the organisation while those people are there. But when they leave, their knowledge leaves with them.
By comparison, educational organisations are increasingly aware of the challenge of building practical supply chain knowledge and learning by doing. While interactions with real life supply chains may not always be available, they put greater emphasis on education through experience. The celebrated beer game is an example, showing supply chain dynamics to students by experiential learning. This is good, but still not enough.
Specific Supply Chain Education/Certification Programmes
These have elements in common with traditional education programmes. The aim is for supply chain professionals to achieve a recognised, sustainable level of excellence. The programmes are sometimes designed for continuing re-certification, instead of a one-time diploma or university degree. They often bring together people who already have considerable experience in supply chain, helping to maintain a focus on supply chain learning and information exchange.
They may also offer certification in specific supply chain subdomains such as demand planning, RFID-driven supply chain, supply chain technology or sector-specific supply chain (like healthcare, for instance). Advantages to employers and supply chain professionals alike can include ‘bankable’ certifications and stepping stones to higher level career positions such as supply chain director.
Conditions for admission to such programmes may include already having related diplomas and/or being able to prove industry experience (often between 2 and 5 years). While this helps to maintain an overall level of quality, it makes such programmes harder to access. It may also rule them out as a supply chain learning solution for enterprises that need results now, rather than in a few months or perhaps a few years.
Pragmatic Training Targeting Key Opportunities to Improve
Somewhere between the learning options that lean heavily towards theory or towards prior experience, there should be a solution that can bring immediate relief and benefit to organisations and supply chain employees. Ideally such a programme does the following:
- Makes experienced instructors with up to date industry knowledge available to learners
- Focuses right away on what individual learners and their employers or sponsors require
- Fills in the knowledge gaps that have the most impact on individual course participants
- Offers immediate improvement with a timescale long enough to get learners happily engaged in getting better at supply chain, and short enough to minimise any impact of absence from work.
A successful, pragmatic training solution applies the ’80-20’ rule that businesses know so well. By tailoring learning to specific participants’ needs and using positive learning reinforcement, this kind of supply chain training can achieve significant results (as much as 80% of what is needed) in training sessions organised in bite-sized chunks (20% or even less of all supply chain training time).
By getting directly to the heart of the matter in this kind of training, participants can see the real impact and opportunities on their business as a whole. They may be business directors or owners, warehouse managers or people in human resources, finance or other functions, who simply realise the need to also understand one of the most strategic parts of their company. The targeted training makes essential ‘need to know’ items, practical insights and tools, and knowledge available and helps all participants to make immediate use of all of them.
Finally, Which is the Best Way to Learn about Supply Chains?
Each person has his or her own needs for learning, whether by personal preference or professional background. A young student may prefer a year of classroom learning before affronting the real world. Seasoned supply chain professionals may yearn for a particular certification to make their resume look even better. Enterprises and organisations may want to run in-house initiatives or reward excellence in employees with a year out to study further. When it comes to immediate insights and gains in performance, as well as practical tips and personalised, relevant knowledge however, pragmatic training sessions making full use of the 80-20 rule are hard to beat. They can then be an excellent route towards sharply improved results back at work or further education options if desired.