May 1, 2015
Column | fastlane

A supply chain generation gap?

Is there a gap between the older and younger generations in the supply chain profession? You bet there is, and thank goodness for that.

By Clifford F. Lynch

The Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals (CSCMP) is conducting a survey to determine the interests of its more senior members and get their thoughts on whether there's a generation gap in the profession. The group is seeking input from those whose membership numbers fall below 9,999; and as one whose number is 666, I fall squarely into the "senior member" category. As I reviewed the survey questions, I was struck by how much the profession has changed since the days when CSCMP was known as the National Council of Physical Distribution Management (NCPDM).

A few days later, I was thumbing through a trade publication that featured a section on "pros to know," or its take on the current supply chain visionaries. While there were a few notable exceptions, the vast majority of the men and women listed were affiliated with a company that marketed supply chain technology. Around the same time, I ran across a survey of chief financial officers by Duke University that found that 70 percent of the respondents felt that the advantage of hiring so-called "millennials" was their expertise in technology. So is there a gap between the older and younger supply chain generations? You bet there is. Obviously, there is no hard and fast dividing line between the two groups. Some younger practitioners may subscribe to the more traditional management techniques, and I know several (OK, a few) senior practitioners who have an excellent grasp of new supply chain technologies.

Regardless of our time in grade, most of us are familiar with such systems as warehouse and transportation management software. They've been around for quite some time (although looking back, the early versions were fairly primitive). But today, the list of technologies designed for supply chain applications is almost endless. There are sophisticated systems for managing labor, inventory, and the yard. There are voice order picking systems and speech recognition software. We have GPS, RFID, bar codes, clouds, wireless technology, and 3D printers, not to mention our smartphones, which give us almost instant connectivity. Obviously, with all this technology comes a new breed of supply chain practitioner. This vast reservoir of technology would be useless without those who understand it, relate to it, and can apply it effectively. This is where the gap exists—and a huge one it is.

As an adjunct supply chain instructor, I am constantly reminded of what my students do not know and what they know that I don't. They don't believe me when I tell them that 25 years ago, I paid a consulting firm several hundred thousand dollars to perform a basic network analysis for my company. Most of them do not know that transportation was once regulated. But when we begin a discussion about some of the current technologies, they quickly leave me behind.

So yes, there is a generation gap, and thank goodness there is. As the world becomes smaller, customers become more demanding, and channels of distribution change rapidly, a supply chain manager's task would be impossible without new techniques and technology, and the people who understand them.

As with every major change, however, there is a risk, and the supply chain environment is no exception. Already, we have seen breakdowns in personal communication and in sensitivity to our colleagues, fellow employees, and subordinates, as well as declines in other management skills that cannot be systematized. I see this as a huge risk, for I believe strongly that the future belongs to the supply chain manager who can master the technology and at the same time, maintain those attributes that are so necessary for effective human relations. For these, technology will never be a substitute.

About the Author

Clifford F. Lynch
Columnist
Clifford F. Lynch is principal of C.F. Lynch & Associates, a provider of logistics management advisory services, and author of Logistics Outsourcing – A Management Guide and co-author of The Role of Transportation in the Supply Chain. He can be reached at cliff@cflynch.com.

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