3 Skills Supply Chain Managers Need Today

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Attracting talented young professionals to supply chain and procurement careers is crucial as supply organizations race to replace retiring baby boomers. Bringing in younger workers, who have different sets of skills, methods of communicating and ways of collaborating, is a top focus for many companies, which value these differences as a way to tap innovation and maintain a competitive edge. But what specific skillsets are supply chain and procurement organizations looking for?

To find out, we asked Robert Handfield, professor of supply chain management at North Carolina State University and director of the Supply Chain Resource Cooperative. He has been teaching supply chain management for more than 20 years — the last 16 of which have been spent teaching future supply chain managers at NC State. Below are the top three skills Handfield said modern supply chain managers need to succeed.

1. Be a Decision Maker

The supply chain is always moving, changing and facing new threats. Supply chain managers need to be quick thinkers and be able to make decisions under pressure. According to Handfield, they also need to be able to come to a decision sometimes under “conditions of extreme uncertainty.” They cannot sit around and wait for their idea to be approved by various levels of management or by executives.

But how do you drive people to make decisions independently and confidently? Handfield points to a specific governance of decision making. It’s a process that is 80% standardized and 20% customizable based on the specific context and considerations of a decision. It’s also about having “situational awareness,” Handfield said. Supply chain managers need to use whatever information they have on hand at the moment to make the best decision for the business.

2. Communication & Networking Skills

Supply chain managers today need to know not only what is happening within their own organization but also what is happening in the broader market. Handfield said maintaining a certain level of market intelligence and remaining aware of new trends in procurement — and why and how things are changing — are strong qualities in a potential employee.

Networking also plays a major role here. Supply chain managers must be able to network with peers, and good communication skills are necessary to do so, Handfield said.

3. Understand How to Use Data and Apply Data Analytics

Market intelligence doesn’t just come from networking, though. A huge amount of insight comes from data analysis, too. The challenge is understanding how to actually analyze data and apply the analysis to supply chain strategy to drive positive results. People in supply chain management and procurement careers must have knowledge on data and data analytics, Handfield said. They need to understand what data is available to them, and how to apply the data and analytics to solve a supply chain problem.

Data analytics is a “real hot point” in every major discussion on supply chain and procurement today, Handfield said. Data analysis skills have gone from a nice-to-have to a need-to-have. It’s a shift that has occurred as procurement and supply chain organizations have moved from focusing solely on cost reduction to improving the overall supply chain.

Organizations used to be all about negotiating with suppliers to get the lowest prices and reduce spend as much as possible. There are still organizations focusing on this, Handfield said, but that number is declining more and more. Today, more organizations are focused on making supply chains more responsive and being able show value to stakeholders in other ways than simply cutting spend. Achieving these goals, however, takes data analytics, Handfield said. It also requires people who can understand data analytics and apply the insights to problem solving. At the moment, younger generations seem to be the ones most comfortable with accessing and using data in different ways, he said.

Older generations are still very much needed in supply chain, however. Supply chain managers and procurement professionals who have been in the field for years need to serve as mentors to younger generations and share the background knowledge they have gained, Handfield said. If that doesn’t happen, he pointed out, the next generation of supply chain managers won’t understand the broader context of what is happening in the industry.

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