How do you learn how to succeed in supply chain, an environment that is constantly changing, that cuts across more functional areas in an organisation than almost any other discipline, and that relies on practical judgment just as much as textbook theory – especially if you’re already working in it fulltime? Such is the challenge of supply chain education. Naturally, that challenge extends to neighbouring departments too. In finance, procurement, manufacturing, logistics, sales and customer service, understanding supply chain is becoming increasingly important to doing your own job well. And of course, it can also open up additional career opportunities and help enterprises strengthen and develop the vitally important supply chain function.
Importance and Challenges of Supply Chain Education
Enterprises, organisations and markets all evolve. People working in them must move forwards too, because even standing still is equivalent to moving backwards. Not only is supply chain one of the strongest competitive differentiators for enterprises, but customers are also driving their suppliers harder than ever to develop and innovate in their supply chains.
Yet supply chain performance is still determined by the people running the supply chain. While progress has been made in on-site software and cloud applications to automate and accelerate aspects of supply chain, the complexity of most supply chains continues to defy IT. It still takes human beings to see the patterns, make the links, and decide on suitable trade-offs between different supply chain dimensions for optimal overall profitability and customer satisfaction. Computers can be programmed, but people need to be educated in order to get the right results.
In this context, supply chain education should address the following five challenges:
- Challenge 1 – Apply to real-life, current supply chain questions, problems and opportunities
- Challenge 2 – Get results, through useful, directly applicable knowhow, knowledge and insights
- Challenge 3 – Minimise time taken away from normal productive work
- Challenge 4 – Maximise the durability/duration of results and knowledge acquired
- Challenge 5 – Create an effective learning process for those who already know a lot about supply chain.
Now that we know what has to be done, how do we do it?
The Way to Effective Learning
The opening up of cyberspace at work has not removed the “hard cap” of 24 hours to each day. The first step towards effective education in supply chain is to recognise this fact. However, the Web introduces a useful extra dimension to complement other developments in effective and efficient learning. With the right approach, the new range of tools and techniques available can be used to maximise supply chain education benefits, while minimising the time and effort needed to achieve them – a far cry from the “cram like crazy and hope you pass” philosophy of some previous learning modes.
Certain education options will work better than others. Ideally, a “drip-feed” system or instant “make-over” would often be best. Supply chain education solutions that take these concepts into account are more likely to meet the five challenges above. Long, overly general or overly theoretical courses that take up too much time for too little immediate practical benefit will not help. Better solutions will use short practically oriented training sessions with information that is immediately applicable to business and work needs, or mentoring to provide pertinent information.
Meeting Challenge 1 – Apply to real-life, current supply chain questions, problems and opportunities
Only trainers, instructors or workgroup leaders who also work in supply chain today can offer the most relevant and practical education on key current issues. This does not negate the value of other contributors including universities and other further education establishments, observers such as business press journalists, or supply chain theorists and modellers. In fact, a well-rounded supply chain education often contains elements from all of these sources. Good university courses ground students in fundamental supply chain principles, analytical rigour, and attention to detail, all of which form a solid platform for the next stage. Journalists can offer insights into and examples of current supply chain practices. Theorists can make mathematical models of supply chains to help understand and predict supply chain performance, before practical application to test the utility and accuracy of such models.
However, a professional working with real-life supply chain complexity and results on a daily basis is best positioned to pull together the different strands of critical importance right now. Those strands are what a supply chain worker needs to know about, at operational and at management levels, because they have an impact on business today. At the same time, somebody knowledgeable about current supply chain questions and priorities must also offer realistic solutions to handle them, and be a good communicator to get the message across. Supply Chain School selects its instructors according to these three critical criteria – current experience, practical problem-solving, and communications skills. Instructors and presenters include both active supply chain consultants and industry executives.
Meeting Challenge 2 – Results through useful, directly applicable knowhow, knowledge and insights
While it’s reassuring to know that instructors can solve problems, the real measure of the effectiveness of supply chain education is how well learners and participants can solve their own problems afterwards. By learning about key supply chain issues through peer group discussions and practical exercises, as well as interactive presentations in a context that makes it fun and rewarding, participants can engage at different levels and take much more away with them for direct application afterwards.
Because constructive collaboration is also a powerful learning tool, Supply Chain Leaders Academy organises mentor groups for even deeper embedding of practical understanding and application. At these events, supply chain professionals come together in a non-competing yet industry-relevant, confidential environment to share issues and insights. The education process is underpinned by an advanced learning program that is blended with facilitation of discussions and exchanges, all so that “iron sharpens iron”.
Meeting Challenge 3 – Minimise time taken away from normal productivity
So far so good, but what about the time needed to participate? It’s clear that an hour in supply chain education is an hour that is unavailable for on-the-job application. While the return on investment in supply chain education can be considerable, enterprises depend on their employees being sufficiently present and available for their duties at work. The answer lies in the focus and the efficiency of the education process.
- Focus. In the first instance, supply chain education has to focus on the “need to know” items. These may vary according to the level of the participants. Those younger in the field of supply chain can benefit from practical tips they did not get at university. Others make the most of constantly updated industry knowledge that addresses the burning issues of today. Focus also applies to the timing and venue of educational events. Supply Chain School holds three “full on” two-day sessions in an easy-to-reach location. Experience shows this to be an excellent compromise between effective knowledge transfer and overall productivity back at work.
- Efficiency. Jargon and wordiness has to be stripped out where possible, or demystified once and for all. Plain speaking and directly usable information are what count, and a practical approach may often be preferred to a theoretical one. Similarly, a positive group environment helps reinforce useful learning and avoid distraction during each session. An alternative for those seeking to build basic supply chain knowledge is to use purpose-designed study packs. These combine video, audio and text content with study guide books and exercises for maximum educational impact.
Meeting Challenge 4 – Maximise durability/duration of results and knowledge acquired
Supply chain education sessions on their own have many advantages – but also a possible disadvantage. Even with the most engaging, effective methods during the session, much of the knowledge gained then evaporates afterwards if no other action is taken. For some, the solution is to attend another session a few months later. Supply Chain School makes sure its education programmes are based on “never repeat material”, constantly refreshed to reflect what is happening in the supply chain sector today.
Educational material and knowledge can also be topped up after a two-day session using online education in a “drip-feed” fashion. Weekly eClasses such as those now offered by Supply Chain School can keep supply chain professionals and other interested parties (colleagues from finance, IT, manufacturing and so on) on track.
Meeting Challenge 5 – Effective learning for those who already know supply chain.
What can you teach the supply chain professional who knows (almost) everything? Surprisingly perhaps, seasoned supply chain executives and managers form a large market for supply chain education, with an appetite for new knowledge that rivals that of those just entering the field. They know how fast industry is moving, and how important it is to stay sharp in supply chain matters. The challenge is to find the appropriate channel for getting new knowledge to them.
Two-day sessions, mentor programs and weekly online knowledge updates are all available. However, those leading their sector in in terms of supply chain experience and achievement may gain even more by interacting with a broader cross-section of other leaders in a think tank event. Widening the field to include a range of different industries (compared to mentoring groups drawn from the same industry) opens up opportunities for cross-pollination of ideas, concepts and practices, as well as business networking during and after the think tank.
Getting Supply Chain Education Approved
Education of any kind involves a budget of money, time or both. In times when many organisations are scrutinising any expenditure of either, successfully getting education or training approved could be the subject of a course in itself! Essentially, your company, or the entity deciding whether or not to approve and fund, will usually want to be convinced that the return on investment is positive, useful to the business, and affordable. Busy supervisors may not want to spend hours deliberating over such a decision, which means the justification you present to them should be concise, well-founded and with high positive impact (like Supply Chain School programmes!). But “short, sweet, and to the point” typically also needs some preparation. Here’s a blueprint of steps to help get it right.
- Briefly describe the benefits. For example, supply chain education might help solve a known problem (“we must understand supply chain here in IT, or we can’t develop the systems the company now needs”). It might accompany a transition (“with the company decision to in-source again, we need to be up to speed again in-house with supply chain current issues”). Or it might open up new opportunities (“if HR understands supply chain better, we can identify and attract top-flight supply chain talent for the company”).
- Make your proposal. Using the programme of the event you plan to attend, the description of the educational materials to be acquired, or both, show how planned benefits are backed up by the programme or content. The closer they map onto the benefit you want, the better – but start from the benefit, not from the programme or content! If you will be absent, state any necessary arrangements to cover your work while you are away.
- Calculate the budget. This must include not only the cost of the event and/or materials, but also of any travel and accommodation. If you know there are budget restrictions in place, this may affect your choice of a supply chain education solution.
- Set a meeting to discuss. It may only take a few minutes, but leaving a little time for the person holding the purse strings to prepare psychologically is often wise. Setting a meeting also shows you are taking the matter seriously and preparing with due care and attention, positive factors that help get the approval you want.
- Bonus blueprint step – the follow-up! Meet again with the approving party after you have attended the event, or begun the educational program, to show how benefits to your company are being realised. Take the initiative, show appreciation, and lay the foundations for approval of subsequent training or education you might need (in supply chain or any other domain).
How many of these five challenges you will need to meet at any given time will depend on you and your role in your organisation. Supply chain novices may concentrate on challenges one to four. Supply chain professionals with experience, or organisational training managers arranging training for others may also address challenge number five (continuing education for those who already know supply chain well). Supply Chain Leaders Academy can help you with all of them and we look forward to welcoming you to our events and programmes accordingly.
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If you want to learn more about ‘fast track’ Supply Chain education programs, check out this free webinar that we have coming up shortly.
Boosting Team Performance through improved ‘Fast Track’ Supply Chain Education