A SUPPLY CHAIN GENERATION GAP?

As the so-called millennials are becoming the predominant members of the workforce, they are coming face to face with those baby boomers (51-70) who are continuing to work. An increasing percentage of the workforce is by-passing the traditional retirement age of 65, and working well into their seventies and beyond. The result is a generational void we should not ignore or criticize, but should understand and benefit from.

A few months ago, I was thumbing through a trade publication which featured a section on “pros to know”, or the magazine’s take on the current supply chain visionaries. Not surprisingly, while there were a few notable exceptions, the vast majority of the men and women listed were affiliated with a firm that offered some variation of supply chain technology. In another survey of chief financial officers, Duke University found that 70% of those surveyed 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 exact defining line between the two groups. Some younger practitioners may subscribe to the more traditional techniques; and I know several (OK, maybe 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 those for warehouse and transportation management. They have been around for quite some time, although looking back, the early ones were fairly primitive. But today, the list of applications for supply chain 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, Block chain, AI, digitalization, and 3D printers, not to mention our smart phones 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 aware 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 do a basic network analysis for my company. Most of them do not know that transportation was once regulated, but when we begin a discussion of some of the current technology, 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, without new techniques and technology, and the people who understand them, a supply chain manager’s task would be impossible.

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, sensitivity to our colleagues, fellow employees and subordinates, as well as 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 that 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, but perhaps the baby boomers can help smooth the edges a little.

Written By: Clifford F. Lynch