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  • Writer's pictureZsofia NAGY

Why supply chain management is and isn't different from any other business function?

This year, I came across interesting comments & notions about supply chains and supply chain education specifically.

One of these actually stated that a supply chain practitioner learned more about supply chain from someone's book, who wrote that book about finance.

I'm happy that the learning took place, no matter how and even happier to see that some finance professionals actually understand supply chain (they are my favourites).

Yes, I said that. As it is true….working in finance does not automatically qualify people for working in supply chain & operations and it is still very much the notion in some industries - whether they admit it or not (e.g. pharma industry, but I could name a few more).

The even bigger point here is that this ties in very much with my observation that actually, we reached little progress in many ways when it comes to elevating education for supply chainers.

We do good work in deep functional knowledge aspects at most levels, meaning these educational materials and tutors are available if a company or an individual is willing to spend time/effort/money on it. But these are only good to get specialist knowledge.

We also started upskilling leaders in soft skills to actually enable them to be leaders and not just specialists or experts.

But, the critical glue that would hold any substantial functional knowledge together and qualify it to be a value adding knowledge in any leadership team (beyond the required soft skills and ethics), is the actual understanding about the entirety of the business and communication skills that can help others get the gist of what's going on (i.e. to enable them to make decisions).

The person doesn't have to be an expert on all functions and it is not even the aim.

What supply chainers need is fundamental understanding of other functions and vice versa, other functions need supply chain understanding, plus how that interconnectedness works.

Every part of a business has its own complexity, but they are all interconnected and everything we do has an impact on the other functions (let alone discussing that impact and interconnections to the environment and societies beyond the business itself).

Without understanding these, we will keep milling away in silos and even the highest trained specialists won't be able to make a difference.

This automatically leads to the question that if we cannot master internal interconnections, how do we expect successful sustainability education to take place?

I don't see this education happening now. Not in supply chains, nor in other functions.

I'm aware that apparently the majority of the MBA studies would have been there to fill this gap….but they didn't or to a limited extent, as otherwise we wouldn't be where we are today (just to be clear, even if supply chainers didn't do MBA studies in larger numbers, other functions did and they still don't get it for some reason OR despite these studies, there are incentives in place which prevent them from exercising that knowledge…good question which one is at play or which is stronger).

All in all, the gap is valid and is there.

As many of my connections already said it along with me, we need more generalists in supply chains and not specialists.

But to see a change, we need to do something for it and I don't see that happening yet at the scale that it would actually make a difference.

The general reflex in most businesses is, when something doesn't work related to supply chain areas - "send the person on another functional/specialist training" or "call a consultant to help out, that will teach the person what needs to be known within the next 3 months"....or "sit next to your colleague and try learning from them - without real supervision and guidance".

These simply won't make a difference.

What works:

  1. Sending all functions to a general business understanding education (even if it is in house)

  2. Re-defining incentives (apply only joint ones to be more specific)

  3. Use metrics only as help & support, not as the "bible" (if you have the correct incentives, this should not represent a problem)

  4. Rotating employees within the function to enable them to get the full complexity of their own functions as well

  5. Inviting employees to cross-functional meetings regularly (as an educational aspect, not as contributors and follow up on what was learnt)

  6. Ensure that leadership has this knowledge when they get on board

I need to state that none of the above are new.

Some of these are already done in companies, but not enough or they still fall into traps from old ways of working.

No wonder, new ways of improving the situation come up and they should - I'm glad to see new types of supply chain education popping up in different places and in different forms.

We should not forget adding the cross-functional aspects for the understanding of the interconnectedness and its impact.

…and maybe….we should not over simplify all roles and those, who want to work in business & supply chains, need to be able to understand the complexity that comes with it.

I guarantee you, it will bring higher job satisfaction and lower attrition rates.

It needs a lot of work organizationally and that's why HR should be rather a critical role and not a support function in the organisations as well (but that's already a different topic - yet interconnected :-)).

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