Whether we worked on the railroads, around trucks, or in warehouses and distribution centers, most supply chain professionals of our generation started out in the trenches. We worked in the execution of basic physical distribution; that's how we learned about logistics and supply chain management.
Later in our careers, we gravitated toward planning and strategic issues related to our functional specialties. We became bosses if we lived long enough or managed to dance through the minefields of corporate politics. The overwhelming majority of us were, and still are, autodidacts—self-taught learning-by-doing professionals.
The new breed
The pathway into the profession began to change some time ago. A slowly growing army of fresh-faced naïfs began to enter the supply chain arena, armed with diplomas from an exponentially larger and larger number of institutions of both higher and lower learning.
The bastions of research and education had been around for quite a while: Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan State, Georgia Tech, and Tennessee, among others. They produced some top-flight practitioners; they also populated the next generations of academia with teachers and researchers. In later years, supply chain and logistics curricula have multiplied like rabbits. They are found—and heavily promoted—at mainstream universities and at obscure community colleges alike. Faculty members may come from traditional academia, but they may also be retired practitioners or former consultants whose knees can't take the pounding any longer.
The Old Guard—that's us, folks—were, and are, encouraged. This development meant that we were for real—that management and the entire business community were ready to take us seriously. Our team could go in and do battle on a more even playing field with the financial and marketing types, and we didn't have to be subservient to manufacturing.
We were also a little envious because the new kids on the block were proficient with tools that we didn't understand, and they weren't afraid to use them. They elevated the analyses that went into making our programs, processes, and performance better, and that was a good thing. We became dependent on them to do the things that we weren't quite as good at.
They were smart and didn't hesitate to show it. And they didn't always regard the past with awe. But we began to quietly ask ourselves whether all their formal education was a useful substitute for having worked in a warehouse or somewhere in transportation along the way.
All the case studies in the world don't prepare a young person for the galvanizing experience of staring down a 300-pound Teamster. Nor does proficiency in Excel or Access teach a newly minted M.B.A. how to tell the CFO that filling 100 percent of the DC's cube capacity is not a good thing. There are invaluable life lessons embedded in learning early how to discipline—even terminate—people. And the process of hiring is a learned skill that can be useful for an entire career.
What we have to understand is that we become valuable contributors through a combination of education tempered with real-world experience. A lifetime of working experience becomes incredibly powerful when augmented with the analytical and technology skills the new generations bring into the workplace with them.
So, where do we go from here? Should all the old codgers get up to date with the latest tools? Probably, at least to some degree. Should management learn how to team the generations so it can apply both kinds of skills to solving operating problems? Certainly. Should all generations get sensitized to the potential value—and peculiarities—of each? You bet!
We confess. There's too much new to totally keep up with; we need to learn to accept input from the newer knowledge base. We'll never match the facility with technology that the kids who've grown up with it display.
Know what? It's invigorating to be around the kids, to watch what they can do, and to mentor those who are open to input from the walking archives of the profession.
On the flip side, we know stuff—tricks, techniques, history, relationships—that they'll never figure out on their own, at least not quickly. We can teach them, as well as learn from them. One of the greatest things we can teach them is that not everything being promoted and written about is for real or is likely to become a reality anytime soon. Another is that two years is not a lifetime. Not to mention that Wikipedia is the knowledge-base equivalent of the National Enquirer. We can make a powerful team, these several generations. For our companies, for our customers, for our suppliers, and for our colleagues.
The critical success factors? Openness to the idea, commitment to the possibilities, and the patience to stumble occasionally on the journey—on all sides.