Time to rewrite the textbooks?

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As logistics professionals, we all know the fundamental importance of supply chain management in almost any business. Martin Christopher’s forecast of supply chains competing rather than brands is more true in the current global trading environment than, I suspect even he imagined at the time of his prediction.

I sit on the steering group of the new CILT Food Logistics Forum which was launched at the end of February. There is something both fascinating and challenging about being involved in initiatives like this from the start and working with a blank sheet of paper.

In particular this gives you an opportunity to ask simple, open questions and get some very helpful responses. A survey of CILT members requested by the steering group revealed eleven key topics of interest to the food supply chain:

Operations management & cost control
Contingency for inclement weather
Vehicle routeing for secondary distribution
Carbon Emissions and Reporting
Cost Saving Measures
Rail/short sea sustainability
Planning & transport management systems
Consolidation/ deconsolidation hubs
Environmental impact of refrigeration.

Unsurprisingly, I looked at this list with a skills perspective and I think it throws up some very interesting issues. At Skills for Logistics, we work across all supply chains, not just Food & Drink. I reckon that if you put together a group of managers from any supply chain, they would draw up a very similar list of key topics of interest to their day-job.

Each of the issues in the list needs managing. Some of that management may be hard-nosed, day-to-day tactical stuff. Some may be strategic and far-reaching. Some may be directly commercial and negotiable. All of them need an awareness and skill level that will not come out of a generic management textbook. This brings me back to the Martin Christopher quote – if your supply chain is to be at its most competitive the skills of your supply chain managers need to be finely honed both to address each of the individual topics and, more importantly as a package to make the right decisions across the board.

Are we satisfied that the skills of our supply chain managers at all levels allow us to get the best out of these topics and therefore out of our supply chain? I don’t believe they do. Are we confident that current qualifications at all levels adequately cover the competences necessary? Maybe, but unless we check we don’t know.

Supply chain management does not take place in a vacuum or a protected bubble. The environment in which the supply chain manager works is very different from what it was even ten years ago. Globalisation, with the emergence of Asian economies and the emerging nature of South America is now very real and a critical backdrop to most supply chain management jobs.

This is complicated further by the physical, economic and political environment. The European Commission’s drive to decouple economic growth and transport costs through the internalisation of external transport costs will increase the challenge of supply chain management even further.

Are we ready for it?
Collaboration is one of the key topics on the list but it is also a potential solution to any drive to increase efficiency. However, do we understand the skill set necessary to enable the identification and implementation of effective collaboration? I’m not aware of any programmes that have identified them.

Collaboration within a supply chain is a relatively straightforward exercise but pulling it off across supply chains is another matter. Or what about the potential offered by collaborating with your competitors? I don’t know what the skills needs are but once again it feels like they won’t be in your average management textbook.

To me, the list of key topics could represent the contents page for a supply chain management skills programme. I don’t know of any qualifications or programmes that cover that lot but it feels to me as if a competitive supply chain needs to have them in abundance.

Maybe the time is right to address this because to paraphrase Martin Christopher: It’s not only supply chains that need to compete effectively but also the countries that house the aspiring supply chain managers. So is UK plc ready for it? Not sure.

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