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.

The design of a watch—a mechanical one at least—incorporates all sorts of springs, wheels, and weights to make it run just right: not too fast, not too slow. A company must similarly include balances and counterbalances in its supply chain to avoid undesirable acceleration or deceleration in its different parts.

That is where the analogy ends though, 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 a 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 a 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, 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 almost certainly have an impact elsewhere. People making such changes need to know how they will affect other parts of the supply chain, both upstream and downstream. A limited, narrow focus can lead so-called solutions to cause more problems in the whole supply chain than 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. Moreover, companies must make this happen in a way that yields the 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:

  1. Traditional education programs.
  2. Trainee programs with an organisation or in an industry.
  3. Learning on the job.
  4. Specific supply-chain-certification programs.
  5. 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 Programs


Basic Building Blocks


These programs often give comprehensive coverage of supply chain theory and principles. The advantages are in the way they are structured to 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 course 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 programs are offered as yearlong 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 full-time, 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 use paid or subsidized study leave as a carrot to encourage existing employees to learn and develop.


Trainee Programs with an Organisation or in an Industry

These programs can improve on practical aspects that traditional learning courses may find difficult to include. Trainees work within the context of a real world, 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.


Supply Chain Trainee


The advantage for the organisation is the ability to tailor the trainee program to produce an end-result that matches its own needs. It also provides the organisation with greater visibility into its human resources, facilitating the planning of employee career development. Companies might use trainee programs 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 program. It may also take 6 – 24 months to ‘deliver’ a correctly trained person who begins the program 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 learned.
  • Employees see supply chain life as it really happens, ‘warts and all’. By comparison, trainee programs can shield trainees from some of the realities, and classroom students may cling to their theoretical maps when the practical territory looks very different.
  • On-the-job training 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: The more capable people will tend to be older. Attracting new employees or talent to replace retirees 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 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. When they leave though, 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-world 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 Programs

These have elements in common with traditional education programs. The aim is for supply chain professionals to achieve a recognised, sustainable level of excellence. The programs 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.


Supply Chain Certification


Conditions for admission to such programs 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 programs 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 either towards theory or prior experience, there should be a solution that can bring immediate relief and benefit to organisations and supply chain employees. Ideally, such a program 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 management, and short enough to minimise any impact of absence from work.


80-20 Rule


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 important aspects, this kind of training helps participants to see the real impact and opportunities for 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 understand more about their company’s supply chain. 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.


A Choice of Delivery Options

Before concluding, it’s also worth mentioning that in addition to the different learning options, supply chain organisations and their students have a choice in the way that education is delivered. With the exception of pure on-the-job training, which must necessarily be confined to the physical workplace, educational activities can take place in a classroom environment, online, or through a combination of both methods.

Whether traditional supply chain courses, industry or company-sponsored training programs, certification programs, or pragmatic training are chosen, students should ideally be offered the option to choose between each of these methods of delivery.

Wherever possible, this decision should be taken by the student. After all, we all have our own learning styles, which tend to affect how we take on and assimilate the knowledge delivered by a training program. However, it may not be realistic to offer a choice between a purely classroom-based or online program of supply chain education.


Striking the Happy Medium with a Blended Learning Approach

It’s typically no problem for an educational institution to provide either wholly online or traditional programs, but for an employer, dividing trainees into two camps—online and traditional—might be impractical for cost reasons, or because it creates issues with administration and the allocation of study time.


For companies in which this is the case, an increasing number of programs offer blended learning, and indeed, such programs may be the closest thing to a perfect solution for supply chain education.


The blended learning approach typically combines a set number of classroom or workshop events, with a series of online modules. They can be weighted in favor of online learning, punctuated by occasional workshops, or place the emphasis on regular physical classes, with online learning to support and reinforce the content delivered in the classroom.


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 though, as well as practical tips and personalised, relevant knowledge however, pragmatic training programs, utilising a blend of traditional classes and online modules and 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.

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in March 2015 under the title “Supply Chain Education Options”. It has now been revamped and extended with a new section to provide more comprehensive information.


Contact Rob O'Byrne
Best Regards,
Rob O’Byrne
Phone: +61 417 417 307


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