Written by Omera Khan

Which supply chain and procurement skills will best equip us for the future?

For those of us working in the field of supply chain and procurement education, it’s an open secret. Namely, that some disciplines see little change over the years: a curriculum that was fit for purpose ten or fifteen years ago will still be very largely fit for purpose today. But the same is most emphatically not true of supply chain and procurement.

And it’s not difficult to see why. Today’s supply chains are hugely changed from those of ten or fifteen years ago—meaning that entirely different skills are required in order to design, develop, and manage those supply chains.

Different agendas

Partly—but only partly—those changes have come about through technology. Think shipment‑level real‑time GPS‑based track‑and‑trace technology, for instance, often augmented with environmental condition monitoring. Fuel‑efficient low‑carbon freight‑carrying systems. Robotic picking faces and ‘smart’ materials handling equipment. The Internet of Things. Automation‑enhanced ‘last mile’ same‑day delivery: think drones, automated storage bins, or pavement‑trundling robots. And so on, and so on.

Advanced systems, for another. End‑to‑end track‑and‑trace capabilities, with full enterprise system visibility. Data links through to customers and suppliers. Online trading platforms, with offering e‑auctions and combinatorial optimisation. Data analytics. Blockchain. Predictive modelling. Advanced planning and scheduling. ‘Guided’ buying, and chatbots.

But partly, too, the changes have come about through new and emerging competitive paradigms, and business models. Think about the radical upheavals that we are all seeing in the world of retail—e-commerce, the so-called ‘death of the High Street’, the collapse of once-mighty department store chains, and the dominance of Amazon. Think too about the emergence of sustainability as a competitive paradigm: ethical sourcing, the circular economy, and zero-carbon warehousing facilities and transport. And those are just two examples: there are many more—Brexit, Covid‑19, trade tensions, the rise of re‑shoring and near‑shoring, and so on.

Skills not technology

The challenge in all this is obvious. To some extent, technology and systems can be bought ‘off the shelf’. But everything else calls for skills, and judgement. And even technology and systems require the skills to be able to identify the right technologies and systems to buy, the skills so as to be able to implement them within the business, utilise them to the full, and utilise them so as to deliver the expected outcomes.

Business schools and conventional approaches to supply chain and procurement education struggle to keep pace with all this change. Educators and institutions do their best, but the sheer range of disciplines involved raises obvious challenges.

And it’s important to remember that business schools and conventional approaches to supply chain management and procurement education focus most on those in the early stages of their careers—those entering the worlds of supply chain management and procurement. For those higher up the organization, whose formal education might have ended ten or twenty years ago, unless the individuals in question voluntarily engage with further education, such institutions can do little to provide skills refreshers. Yet, ironically, these people higher up the organization are the very people who are making the decisions regarding these new supply chain developments, and who must lead the resulting implementations and change programmes.

Looking ahead

But there’s another dimension to this skills issue. Because it is also necessary—vital, even—to possess forward‑looking skills. With technology and systems, for instance, organizations need to know not only about the technology and systems that the business needs today, but also those that it will need in the future. So too with leadership, strategy formulation, talent management, as well as the myriad more detailed skills that are required by middle management and below, of course.

It’s easy to say today, for example, that data analytics is a vital skill for both organizations and individuals to possess. And by ‘data analytics’, or course, something more advanced than mere spreadsheet skills is usually meant. But who was saying this five or ten years ago? Rather fewer organizations and individuals than are saying it now. Visionaries at the cutting edge, maybe, but few beyond that.

Clearly, this complicates matters. It’s difficult enough being definitive about the supply chain and procurement skills and competencies that matter most today. Those that will be needed in the future? That’s a different order of difficulty altogether.

And yet those of us who run businesses or supply chains—or those of us who advise those people who run businesses or supply chains—must make predictions: it’s our job. Because a business or supply chain that is ill‑prepared for the future is a business or supply chain that may not have much of a future.

Which is why I recently led a project looking at precisely this question. What are the skills that supply chain and procurement managers need to possess—not just now, but in the future?

Some of the answers may surprise you. To be honest, they sometimes surprised me. But the facts speak for themselves: talking to some of the most insightful supply chain and procurement experts that I know, these were their views. And fascinating they are.

Did we get it right? Broadly speaking, I’m convinced that we did. But don’t let me be the sole arbiter here. Judge for yourself. Because the findings were summarized as a report: Skills for the Future, freely downloadable from the Skill Dynamics website. 

As I say, the paper is freely available: why not download a copy?

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Dr. Professor Omera's venture into supply chain management began at Cranfield School of Management, after completing a Masters in Design Procurement at UMIST (University of Manchester, UK) followed by a PhD in Supply Chain Risk Management at the Alliance Manchester Business School.

Omera Khan