More than a year after COVID-19 forced global commerce to a standstill, the way companies think about supply chains has forever changed, and so have the opportunities in the supply chain industry.
While end-to-end comprehension of the supply chain has long been a critical starting point, the pandemic underscored the importance of strategically rethinking and adjusting business processes and accelerated the adoption of digital supply chains.
Business skills, analytics skills, and soft skills like creativity and flexibility can give you a competitive edge in this new landscape, while skills in areas like data analytics are increasingly becoming an essential part of the job description for many supply chain roles.
Data Skills and Digital Literacy
Emerging techniques and technologies, from data analysis to 3D printing, are changing the very shape of the pipeline as new business models, platforms, and mobile applications begin to replace certain links in the supply chain. As a result, technically-minded professionals will have more and more opportunities to make inroads.
“With new enhancements in computational capabilities, it is becoming easier for businesses to tackle complex big-data optimization and forecasting problems,” said Mayank, an edX learner in the MITx Supply Chain Management (SCM) MicroMasters® program. “The supply chain industry has significantly benefited from these advancements to improve planning, thereby enhancing overall operational efficiency. As the volume of data grows, the bandwidth of the network a company is using to transfer that data must also grow.”
While it’s increasingly important to understand the opportunity and impact of digital transformation, you don’t necessarily need to be an expert in each area.
“We’re not trying to turn them into data scientists,” said Dr. John Fowler, Motorola Professor in the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University (ASU) and instructor for ASU’s online supply chain management master’s program. “We're trying to make supply chain professionals have a sense of what data science can do. Certainly, in large companies, there are usually teams of data scientists that can help if a student is educated enough to know where those techniques might be applicable.”
We’re not trying to turn them into data scientists. We're trying to make supply chain professionals have a sense of what data science can do."
Consider augmenting your resume by learning more about:
- Artificial Intelligence
- Autonomous vehicles and drones
- Business analytics
- Information systems
- The Internet of Things
- Predictive analytics
- 3D printing
Information systems is a great skill addition or gateway into supply chain, as many companies hire for this type of background and re-skill into supply chain roles.“The intersection of information systems and supply chain is the biggest change happening right now,” said Ed Anderson, Jr. Centennial Professor for the Management of Innovative Technology at the University of Texas, Austin. “Information systems professionals are already doing a lot of supply chain work."
Strategic Thinking, Planning, and Problem Solving
In this changed industry, tried and true strategies no longer work as well as they used to. Supply chain professionals must be adaptable and ready to tackle new challenges with a fresh approach.
For example, COVID-19 forced companies to rethink several key functions. For sourcing, that meant bringing operations back on shore, moving sourcing closer to production, or both. For inventory management strategies, many were hurt by trying to run too lean during pandemic times, while others had to scramble to offload excess inventory due to shrinking demand. Disruptions also forced companies to optimize reverse logistics procedures, which Dr. Fowler predicts will be one of the biggest keys in supply chains going forward.
“That really has come to the forefront, particularly during COVID, and I don't think we're going to go back to the way it was,” Dr. Fowler said. “A lot of people now, if they're going to buy clothing, will order three different sizes online, have them shipped to them, and then send two of them back.”
Anderson identified four key strategic skills for the future of supply chain:
- Ability to come up with business models and iterate. This can be difficult for people repurposing from tech and engineering roles, but is critical for anyone aspiring to procurement roles and will eventually become critical in operations roles as well.
- Demand/yield management: Matching pricing to supply is a skill. You will need a solid business model understanding to make those decisions.
- Finding a factory bottleneck: Less than half of people can pinpoint the cause, even with on-the-job training, so this is a highly desirable skill.
- Marketing: Supply chain management and marketing are practically inseparable, especially when it comes to demand management.“Marketing and supply chain operations management go hand in hand,” said Anderson. “You do one without the other, it’s like one hand clapping; it just doesn’t work.”
Anderson shares this anecdote to illustrate the intersection of marketing and supply chain skills:
A women’s professional wear company offered business attire according to multiple measurements per article rather than just calling it a “size 6.” If the company had focused on the demographic of “affluent professionals,” it could have succeeded, as this demographic values a good fit that does not require tailoring, and dresses in a more limited palette. Instead, by marketing too broadly, it flopped in almost every demographic from “trend-seekers,” who prioritized variety in standard sizes, to “fit skeptics,” who overbought and then returned products. Meanwhile, offering so many alternatives introduced complexity to the assembly line. Matched with unpredictable demand from a scattered customer base, the business was not successful or sustainable.
People and Project Management Skills
In a 2019 research study by Indago, high-level executives ranked the most important skills for young professionals to have in supply chain jobs. 94% of respondents ranked analytical skills in the top three must-have skills. People skills followed with 61% of the vote, and communication skills with 50%. Only 11% of respondents said having a degree in supply chain management was a top qualifier.
- People skills: Relationship management is the foundation of healthy long-term vendor and supplier relationships as well as in-house team efficiency and morale. While automation can improve many parts of the supply chain, technology cannot replace human relationships in the workplace. Especially in procurement, you’ll be dealing with people outside of your firm. And in any role, you’ll be interacting with people from other cultures and backgrounds, where making assumptions could be harmful to that person and your relationship with them. While people skills are an asset in any role, those who aspire to management or c-suite positions must make it a priority to learn and practice their people skills.
- Communication: Communication is a core competency for anyone in a management or leadership position.
- Leadership: Now more than ever, supply chain leaders need change management skills such as decision-making and the ability to embrace agile business strategies. Are you a pro at spotting opportunities to trim, streamline, and optimize? If you can manage and reduce complexity and can grasp the importance of standardizing processes and continuous process improvement over “Big Bang” changes, you may be a great candidate for a supply chain leadership role.
- Project Management: This function is often outsourced, but with the right management in-house, it doesn’t have to be. In addition to daily responsibilities, supply chain managers may need to spearhead specific projects. This could be anything from introducing new technology to taking a supply chain global. Project management bundles together a set of skills, which include risk management, financial awareness, agile scheduling and planning, meticulous organization and documentation, and communication.
Building hybrid skills is increasingly important for any field. Many people in procurement roles have been repurposed from tech fields to fill shortages in talent for supply chain roles. However, acting as a liaison between your organization and its suppliers takes a separate skill set that few tech specialists have had previous reasons to learn.
Leveling Up Your Supply Chain Career
Whether you’re aspiring to management or just getting started in supply chain, edX courses and programs are a great way to fill in the gaps once you have taken stock of your existing skills and determined the steps needed to achieve your career goals.
“When I first joined Google’s Supply Chain Engineering team, I knew very little about the domain, as my background is in search and ads,” said Javier. “It was hard to find good resources that were general enough for someone who just started working in the area, but also concrete enough to be useful in day-to-day work.”
“The MITx Supply Chain Management MicroMasters® courses on edX filled that role perfectly for me. The courses didn’t assume previous experience in supply chain management. Concepts were explained in ways that were accessible to beginners, but the material also goes down to a level of detail where it’s directly applicable to my career.”