The skills that supply chain professionals require are changing perhaps faster that most people realise. And soft skills, such as emotional intelligence, are increasingly going to play a part.
Wanted: logistics professionals, good pay and fringe benefits, start now. No, this column hasn’t turned into a job advertisement. But the subject this month is the shortage of skills in the logistics world and what we can do about it.
So why discuss this now? Recently, I was talking to Richard Wilding, professor of supply chain strategy at Cranfield University’s Centre for Logistics and Supply Chain Management. Richard, who incidentally has just been awarded the prestigious Individual Contribution Award at the Supply Chain Excellence Awards 2010, believes a skills shortage is one of the biggest threats currently facing supply chains.
With unemployment around Europe varying from seven per cent in the UK to more than 20 per cent in Spain, I must admit I was surprised when Richard told me that there is a shortage of some of the basic supply chain skills. I checked out a jobs web site and, yes, it is loaded with posts such as assistant warehouse manager, procurement manager, transport administrator, global head of customer fulfilment excellence, and demand planner.
So in some areas at least there is strong competition for people with basic skills. But Richard believes that the problem runs more deeply. It’s about finding the kind of skills that the supply chains of the future rather than the past will need.
His argument is an interesting one. The skills problem is at its most acute among mid to senior logistics and supply chain management, he suggests. The problem isn’t usually that they don’t know how to do their existing jobs. On the contrary, there are many managers throughout Europe with the kind of first-rate logistics skills that have helped to build world-class supply chains.
Instead, the problem is that they lack the skills they will need in the future because the nature of their job is changing, perhaps faster than they realise. Richard told me that he divides logistics skills into two broad categories.
First, there is what he calls the IQ of the supply chain. This consists of the “hard skills”, such as an ability to manage inventory, warehouses and route planning. There is plenty of competition for these skills and nobody is denying that they’re important. But, as Richard puts it, they’re little more than the entry ticket to be in the game. They are a qualifier that gives a supply chain the credibility to operate.
More important in the future is the second set of skills the EQ (or emotional intelligence There is nothing new about soft skills those nice people in the HR department have known about them for years. It’s just that until recently, they haven’t seemed to be one of the competitive differentiators.quotient) of the supply chain. These are “soft skills” such as the ability to build relationships, work without fixed rules or boundaries, communicate ideas and lead by example (rather than by giving orders).
There is nothing new about soft skills those nice people in the HR department have known about them for years. It’s just that until recently, they haven’t seemed to be one of the competitive differentiators in a supply chain. It’s true that the delivery people have been given help in brushing up their ability to deal with customers. But at the higher levels much of the thinking about competitive success in supply chains has focused on process rather than relationships and other EQ-type skills. Design a sharper logistics process, cut out unnecessary steps (drawing on Japanese manufacturing management theories), streamline it with wall-to-wall IT, and you’ve got yourself a world beating supply chain. And you have.
Or, perhaps, that ought to be had. For, today, process and IT can only take a supply chain so far. Take, for example, the need to co-operate across supply chains “co-opetition” something that will become more important as fuel costs continue to rise and the green movement becomes more militant about the environmental impact of logistics.
Until now, supply chains have been obsessed with how vertical integration can cut costs and reduce end-to-end time. And that’s been a correct focus. But, as Richard points out, the world-class supply chains of the future are going to be as concerned about horizontal collaboration as they are with vertical integration.
And building that collaboration is where the EQ comes in. So can old-fashioned logistics pros really change to embrace this cultural revolution in supply chains? No doubt some will and some won’t. Sociologists argue incessantly over how far soft skills can be taught and how far they are embedded deep in personality and character.
But one point is certainly worth pondering. It’s often accepted that women rather than men come more naturally to some of these softer skills such as relationship building. And there are currently all too few women in senior logistics jobs.
So, perhaps, part of the supply chain revolution will be a gender revolution, too, with more jobs for the girls.