How Supply Chain Can Teach Us About the Future of Professional Education

Labor problems are currently one of the most pressing issues in society, especially when it comes to finding talented people for current and future jobs.

Labor Shortage - A Catalyst for Innovative Education

Labor issues command a lot of attention right now, notably the challenge of how to find enough talent to meet current and future market demands. Central to this challenge is developing educational models that meet the changing needs of professionals and their employers.

The supply chain industry is no exception in this sense. However, in some ways, it also offers a case study of how new, innovative approaches to professional education are emerging, especially models that leverage the advantages of online learning.

Familiar Forces of Change

The changes that are transforming the supply chain profession and hence its supporting talent pipeline are familiar to many other professions. Examples include the advance of digitalization and its components including artificial intelligence and machine learning, floods of data that have to be managed and interpreted, and the rise of predictive and prescriptive analytics.

The march of innovation in business is accelerating, fueled to a great extent by trends such as shifts in consumer buying behavior and rising customer expectations. World-scale crises like the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine are also playing a part. Longer-term agents of change include geopolitical tensions, climate change, and aging populations in many advanced economies.

The supply chain field is not alone in being buffeted by these forces. However, discipline is on the front lines. The fact that “supply chain” has featured regularly in news stories over the last two years or so bears witness to the profession’s front-line status in the battle to manage extreme change.

Work Environments in Flux

How are these developments shaping the demand for supply chain talent? Technical skills have always been vitally important, but more so now. The same is true for the ability to keep updating these skills given the pace of technological change. Also, soft skills such as communication, the ability to collaborate effectively, change management, and creativity are gaining currency.

Individuals need skills like these to perform at the highest levels in today’s fast-evolving operating environment. For example, as my colleagues at the MIT Center for Transportation & Logistics (MIT CTL) Dr. Maria Jesús Saénz and Dr. Inma Borrella explain in a recent article, digital technologies allow companies to share supply chain information and assets in new ways.

Consequently, companies - and hence their managers - need to change the way they forge commercial relationships and facilitate alliances. More specifically, employees responsible for developing these supply chain relationships such as account managers and supply managers need to adopt a boundary-spanning mindset. This mindset can equip them to facilitate new forms of collaboration, experimentation, and trust across organizational boundaries; abilities that require new combinations of skills.

Another example of changing skills demands is the need to understand the implications of applying technical tools. Today’s supply chain leaders need to appreciate the limitations of these tools as well as their vast potential. AI-driven demand forecasting can be more precise than conventional methods but is based on historical data for model training.

Data and Artificial Intelligence

If a structural change makes historical trends very different from the present and future, AI-driven models are no more useful than their simpler predecessors. Leaders need to understand the strengths and limitations of these algorithms and have the ability to override them and take over when the need arises. As the chief supply officer of a large pharmaceutical company quipped in a recent discussion with me, “when the intuition and the algorithms diverge widely, we go with the intuition.”

Executives must also learn how to integrate new skill sets into supply chain teams. A good example is the increasing importance of data engineers and data scientists; specialists who hardly featured in operational teams a couple of decades ago. A recent workshop on data management organized by MIT CTL highlighted this challenge.

For example, team leaders at the event discussed the need for engineers and scientists who can explain data-based deliverables in a language that senior management can understand. Additionally, these technical experts must be able to manage relationships with well-established IT departments that follow long-held procedures and processes. Meeting these challenges requires people skills.

Unlocking Innovation

It’s the job of professional education programs to provide opportunities to learn such skills, which means these programs must themselves undergo transformational change. One of the most important is the shift to online learning, which has exhibited explosive growth in the supply chain field.

Consider, for example, that at the end of September 2022 the MITx MicroMasters® Program in Supply Chain Management registered its millionth learner. The program was launched in 2015 by MIT CTL to enable individuals from anywhere in the world to learn continuously and upgrade their skills at their own pace in a flexible online environment. (CTL’s online learning portfolio continues to grow wider as well as bigger; a Sustainable Supply Chain Management online course will launch in November.)

Reaching the millionth MicroMasters enrollment is a remarkable accomplishment, but the effort to develop online programs aligned with the needs of learners and their employers is still at an early stage. For example, educators need to harness the huge amounts of data generated by online courses on how individuals learn to improve programs. MIT CTL is using AI to develop algorithms that track learner behavior patterns and identify those who may need support and are in danger of dropping out. The algorithms help program managers to formulate intervention strategies.

Change Creates Opportunity

In 1956 American entrepreneur Malcolm McLean loaded trailer bodies onto a ship and started the containerization revolution. The innovation opened a new chapter in the story of global trade, and in doing so eliminated countless traditional jobs such as the manual loading and offloading of cargo ships. However, the steel boxes had to be manufactured, maintained, loaded/unloaded, and tracked, activities that created countless new jobs.

The disruptive forces that are transforming the supply chain industry today - and many other industries - through automation and digitization while creating new ones that offer alternative career paths. And the employment opportunities that emerge will require new skill sets and supporting professional educational platforms. It is useful to view our current labor issues in this light as we build talent pipelines for the future.

“Especially for small to mid-sized logistics providers, or those that may be focused on a specific market niche. Certifications can help round out their portfolios and give the company and its employees instant credibility with potential clients.”

Caltech's Center for Technology and Management Education specializes in executive education and development programs for next-generation leaders at technology-driven manufacturing and distribution companies that orchestrate global supply chains. Learn more

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At MIT CTL, we believe learning can be available to everyone, everywhere with minimum barriers to entry. To support this belief, we offer the MITx MicroMasters Credential in Supply Chain Management, an advanced, professional, graduate-level foundation in SCM. This credential opens doors professionally and academically and may serve as a learning pathway to all of our other education opportunities below.

View MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics company profile


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