September 19, 2012
Column | basic training

The ABCs of the ABCs – Alternatives in supply chain education

With the recent explosion in SCM program offerings, it's not always easy to separate the wheat from the chaff. Here are some things to consider.

By Art van Bodegraven and Kenneth B. Ackerman

We have written often, and admiringly, about the explosion of supply chain education options in North America, as the profession takes root in the business mainstream. What was the near-exclusive province of a handful of universities in the '60s has grown like kudzu in Georgia and populates curricula in colleges, universities, community colleges, and for-profit training and education enterprises.

But all may not be champagne wishes and caviar dreams in the academic side of our house.

Recently, we received an impassioned rant from a less-than-delighted graduate. In sum, he was telling the world that a college education is a waste of time and money, undertaken solely to have a fighting chance at getting a job. Further, he felt—correctly—that an industrial engineering degree was not sufficient preparation for a career in supply chain management.

So, how do people wind up in this position? And how might they reduce the possibility of bitter disappointment?

Let's begin with the perhaps startling recognition that educational institutions are, while considerably different from pet food manufacturers, essentially businesses. Their mission includes putting enough butts in the seats to economically justify curriculum offerings. Not enough butts = shutting down programs. It's all about managing a portfolio of brands.

Just now, the hot brand is supply chain management, and there are significant marketplace needs for people with supply chain skills and educations. So, an institution must offer the brand. But realistically, some plan and execute better than others; some have challenging, but realistic, visions, and some have hallucinations and delusions.

How can a person figure out which offerings are: 1) for real, 2) right for personal objectives, and 3) good values?

Like anything else of long-term import, there's a process involved, with research, introspection, and analysis at its core. And, by the way, the process is as important to a 50-year-old in mid-career as it is to an 18-year-old freshman contemplating a major.

Let's deal with a few of the ABCs involved (although to be honest, there seem to be many more Cs than As and Bs). Disclosure: A comprehensive listing is probably impossible, but we can get the thought process started, at least. Some key considerations are as follows:

Advance Research – It is critical to fully investigate quality and "fit" issues well in advance of selecting a program and an institution. Looking back with regret is neither satisfying nor effective.

Assessments – As part of the initial research, use the magic of Google to identify leading supply chain programs and find out why they are recognized and highly regarded.

Career Objectives – The individual must understand what he or she wants to get out of the effort. Is it a job and a paycheck? Is it a launching pad for achieving professional excellence and recognition? Is it learning about how to solve problems, make change, drive enterprise performance, manage complex projects, and set out on a path of continuous improvement and growth? Is the world of analytics and research a comfortable landing place? Or is teaching the sought-after high calling?

Content – Does the curriculum include all elements of supply chain management (SCM) planning and operations? If not, why not? And how important is any omission to one's objectives?

Concept – Is the supply chain approached as a holistic and integrated progression toward ultimate customer success and competitive advantage? Or is it viewed as a collection of functions?

Context – Is supply chain performance presented as a key contributor to corporate (enterprise) performance, with major impacts on asset leverage, return on equity, profit margins, and cash flow? Or it is seen as a cost management tool with specific, but limited, roles in controlling procurement costs, transportation spend, and materials unit costs?

Concentration (or Balance) – Is one aspect of supply chain management, or operating function, emphasized, with other elements included as "by the way" content? Why? If so, how does that mesh with your career objectives?

Contention – Is supply chain management (or logistics) included as part of a broader curriculum (e.g., operations and supply chain management)? Does that dilute the quality and/or content of both elements? Is that important in the long term, as either a positive or a negative?

Confabulation – Is another curriculum passed off, either deliberately or through misguided hopes, as being "virtually the same as" or a "vital pre-requisite to" a supply chain-focused set of courses? (See the note regarding industrial engineering, above.)

Confusion – Could a similar curriculum sound like supply chain management and yet be something else entirely? For example, is a supply management program the same as SCM, or simply another name for sourcing and procurement? Does an SCM program that is premised on manufacturing techniques actually deal with the full range of modern supply chain management?

Currency – Does the program embrace and promote new and emerging concepts, or does it rest on last-century perspectives and definitions? Are you able to tell the difference?

Appellations – Is the program a logistics curriculum? Or a supply chain program? This can be a tricky area. Today, almost everyone has jumped on the supply chain bandwagon. So, the terminology might not have depth, even if it sounds right. The strong pioneering programs, most of which remain among the leaders today, have "logistics" in their names. This merely reflects that they began before "supply chain" terminology gained currency; they are frequently—even usually—full-fledged supply chain programs. In those cases, logistics versus supply chain is a difference without a distinction.

Control – Does the program report into another college or curriculum? For example, is SCM part of marketing, or the business school, or engineering? Can the program make independent decisions about program content, direction, and resource deployment?

Collaboration – Is curriculum content (and faculty) imported from other colleges and programs to create more robust offerings, e.g., engineering, finance, marketing - but under the control of and at the direction of the SCM program? Does the program invite selective participation from outside the academic ranks to add spice, currency, and street cred to its content?

Continuity – Are there several degree programs and options that stimulate and support progression from associate, bachelor's, master's, and doctoral levels? Do these programs look and feel like parts of a whole, or like random collections of content?

Continuation – Are there continuing education offerings that present current developments, "fill in the gaps" in earlier education, keep skills sharp, and engage attendees in coherent and cohesive lifelong learning? These might include workshops, seminars, webinars, online options, short courses, executive programs, and focused M.B.A. options.

Competence and Capability – What is the faculty profile? Is there a mix of generations? Are they graduates of recognized leading programs? Are there any high-profile practitioners who have joined the academic ranks? Do program leaders have Ph.D.s from mail order institutions? Do the academics also work with private sector clients in research and operations projects?

Community – Are professors, deans, TAs, and graduate students active in professional organizations? Do they take leadership roles? Are they engaged with local practitioners in regional and local development—professional and economic—efforts?

Compensation – What is the value proposition being offered? Can documentation regarding comparative earnings outcomes and placement rates be produced to permit a "bang for the buck" analysis?

Right, the processes and elements outlined are demanding and challenging. And we may have merely scratched the surface. But it seems to be a reasonable approach **ital{before} committing "x" years and "y" thousand dollars to preparation for a career. Ask yourself if a medical student might not be looking into the same kinds of issues before targeting a school and a practice specialty.

Worth it? You be the judge. And consider the potential economic and emotional costs of not doing it. At the best, this isn't about a working-for-wages vocational education choice; this is about getting on track to consummate professionalism and a lifetime of satisfying contribution to business and personal success.

About the Authors

Art van Bodegraven
Art van Bodegraven was, among other roles, chief design officer for the DES Leadership Academy. He passed away on June 18, 2017. He will be greatly missed.

More articles by Art van Bodegraven
Kenneth B. Ackerman
Kenneth B. Ackerman, president of The Ackerman Company, can be reached at (614) 488-3165.

More articles by Kenneth B. Ackerman

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