Keeping Your Edge as a Supply Chain Professional in the Face of Change

August 28, 2017

Written by Dr. Madhav Durbha. This guest post originally appeared on Kinaxis’ Industry Blog, the 21st Century Supply Chain.

There is a standalone vehicle emission check shop that I visit to get my car checked prior to the annual tag renewal. For those who are not familiar with the emission check process, you drive your car into the shop. As you wait in your car, a technician hooks your car up to his computer, measures emissions and prints a certificate. The whole process takes about 5 minutes. Just about 4 or 5 years ago the service had cost $25. The aforementioned shop was one of the very few shops providing the service in the vicinity. However, over the next few years, nearly every auto mechanic shop in the area started offering an emission check service. For them, it was simply a loss leader to get the cars in. Then they took advantage of the opportunity to sell higher margin services they offer. Soon, the prices for the service started dropping. The cost of an emission check went down to $20, then $15, and now stands at $10. It wouldn’t take a genius to figure out where the trend will continue to go!

The moral of the story is simple. When a service gets commoditized, the differentiation disappears, and the price that one is willing to pay drops. It doesn’t have to be a service. It can be a product, or even a professional like you and I. We get commoditized, too! Jack Welch said it – “If the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, the end is near”. While he said it in the context of organizations, this could very well be true for individuals, as well.

Let’s talk about the implications of this for supply chain professionals. Supply chain management is quickly evolving to be quite an interdisciplinary field. Just recently, I was talking to a youngster studying industrial engineering with specialization in SCM. The curriculum he is going through is quite well rounded with coursework and internships that included industrial engineering, operations research, big data analytics, systems engineering, and programming. Besides majoring in industrial engineering, he is also getting a minor in computer science.

Now, think about this. This young man and many like him will be entering the workforce with skills that several of us did not have an opportunity to acquire while in school or thereafter. In a few years, he will be a supply chain professional with wide ranging skills, and could very well be sitting in the cubicle or in the office next to you and I.

Contrast that with several professionals I run into whose job descriptions have not changed in the last ten years and have not had any major skills refresh. How can one keep pace? There are plenty of cost effective ways to keep your skills fresh and up to date through online learning platforms, such as Coursera or Udemy. If watching video lectures and taking quizzes and exams are not your thing, there is a wealth of knowledge in the form of free online materials and digital content (including the site on which you are reading this post). For your reference, towards the end of this post I am including links to a variety of blogs and newsletters you may find useful. There is no substitute for ongoing learning when it comes to maintaining your edge. Certain fields of study mandate continuing education. For example, physicians have CME (Continuing Medical Education) credits they need to earn and report to the regulatory agencies as an ongoing requirement to practice their profession. Supply chain professionals in most organizations don’t have any such mandates, exposing them to the risk of irrelevancy. The motivation to learn in case of most supply chain professionals has to come from within!

If you have not watched the highly inspiring and provocative movie Hidden Figures, I encourage you to do so. In this real life story, Dorothy Vaughan, a human computer at NASA in the 1960’s comes to learn about an upcoming installation of IBM 7090 computer that could take her job and that of her coworkers. Instead of resisting change, she takes matters into her own hands by training herself in FORTRAN and helping her co-workers get ramped up, too. In essence, she saw the risk and turned it into an opportunity so that her team became the operators of the new technology!

Enough is being written and said about robots, drones, artificial intelligence, and automation and how these technologies are threatening human jobs in supply chain. Faced with the changes happening in the field of SCM in light of these technologies, what would you like to be? Would you like to be the auto mechanic shop that offers a portfolio of services and thrive, or be single threaded like the standalone emission check shop? Would you like to be like Dorothy Vaughan and control your own destiny, or sit, complain, and fade away into irrelevance? The choice is yours… and the time to act is NOW!

Some useful links for supply chain professionals

This by no means is an exhaustive list. Please add any other sites you recommend in the comments section of this post.

  1. Supply Chain Quarterly by CSCMP: The magazine has some very interesting, emerging trends, and practitioner points of view.
  2. Supply Chain Shaman by Lora Cecere: Lora puts out some great, provocative content. She also touches upon some emerging areas in supply chain such as cognitive computing, blockchain, machine learning and such. Follow her on Linkedin as well.
  3. SCM World’s blogs and newsletters: Subscribe to Kevin O’Marah’s weekly newsletter as well. He brings up quite a few macrolevel factors such as economy, GDP, and such and ties them back to what matters for supply chain.
  4. Wall Street Journal’s daily supply chain and logistics news: Introduced a couple of years ago, it provides a daily digest of key news items relevant to supply chain professionals.
  5. Join the ”supply chain management group(SCM)” on LinkedIn: With close to 200,000 members, individuals post interesting articles they came across or questions, concerns they have around career choices and such to get advice from the broader community.
  6. Supply Chain Brain: A high quality online magazine with articles collated from external sources as well as original content. A good site to bookmark and visit.
  7. SupplyChainDigest: With daily news roundup, weekly newsletters, video interviews, and the fun supply chain caption content, the site contains research and points of views from vendors and practitioners. The editor Dan Gilmore also attends a number of major industry and vendor events and does a good job with trip summaries and such.
  8. Martha Heller’s report: While not exclusively focused on supply chain, Martha’s newsletter keeps you abreast of the IT trends in light of the rise of Cloud platforms and such, interviews with leading CIO’s and such. 


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