Taking a Global Approach to Education

To succeed in an increasingly global environment, supply chain professionals need to broaden their horizons beyond the domestic scene. Education holds the key.

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By Bridget McCrea, Contributing Editor
January 24, 2011 - SCMR Editorial

The days when supply chain managers could go about their business focused solely on their domestic market are long gone. With technology shrinking geographical boundaries down to size, and even the smallest of firms trading and partnering with foreign companies, logistics and supply chain professionals that don’t understand the inner workings of the global supply chain are finding themselves behind the eight ball.

Combine those factors with an economy that’s slowly improving and promising business and trade upswings over the next few years, and the need for solid global supply chain expertise becomes even greater.

“Global business is first and foremost on everyone’s mind right now,”

says David Widdifield, a professor at The Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business in Columbus.

At a recent Fisher focus session, for example, a small group of domestic and international supply chain executives brainstormed and bounced ideas off of one another. When the topic of global business came up, Widdifield notes that the “education of existing and incoming supply chain executives” was cited as a key concern by more than one attendee.

“We’ve been doing these focus groups (for the school’s Career Patterns in Logistics survey) for 38 years, and this is the first time we were able to look so closely at the challenges that global firms are dealing with,” says Widdifield. The 2010 survey also revealed a high level of global activity among respondent firms, whose overseas connections ranged from activities in just one or two countries all the way up to 50 or more countries.

On those companies’ wish lists right now, according to Widdifield, are supply chain managers who are not only excellent tacticians that are good with numbers, but also are skilled at offering and executing solutions in a fast-paced, international environment.  Soft skills, including those centered on communication and presentation, are also in high demand, he adds, as is the ability to function in a team atmosphere.

“The companies that participated in our focus group also talked a lot about the need for these skills and experience, and the importance of building relationships on both the peer and customer sides of the equation,” says Widdifield, who has been working with Fisher’s faculty and staff to develop curricula that addresses these new demands—particularly those that help enhance communication and relationship-building skills.

“Four years ago, everyone wanted supply chain managers who could work with numbers, be tactical and develop solutions,” says Widdifield, adding that the economic downturn and supply chain integration have shifted those needs. “More focus is now being put on a professional’s ability to work with counterparts across departments, state lines, and international borders.”

No Professional Left Behind
In October, John Vande Vate, executive director for Georgia Tech’s Executive Masters International Logistics and Supply Chain Strategy (EMIL-SCS) program, served as the opening speaker at The International Logistics & Supply Chain Strategy Summit. Later the same day, Vande Vate moderated “Around the Globe” discussions highlighting Latin American and European supply chain trends.

The annual event was just one of several globally focused supply chain summits that Vande Vate and his team participate in.  At the gatherings, they listen to a broad range of firms that are doing more business with overseas partners. These companies expressed a desire for experienced, knowledgeable supply chain managers to handle those transactions and interactions. In fact, he says that over 50 percent of Fortune 500 firms are earning more than half of their revenues from international business—a fact that only underscores the need for such professionals.

“Global is where it’s at right now,” says Vande Vate. “Even companies that work primarily with domestic customers are manufacturing many of their products internationally.” That can pose challenges for the supply chain professional who is accustomed to dealing only with American business partners, and who literally overnight is directed to source products from Asia, Europe, or South America.

“Usually the first step in moving toward globalization is working with international suppliers,” says Greg Andrews, the EMIL-SCS managing director.  The situation gets more complicated when manufacturing operations are moved overseas. This not only extends the flow of raw materials and finished goods, but also introduces issues such customs, valuations, currency, and labor management.  “It doesn’t matter if you’re a one-man department or a 20-person team,” says Andrews.  “There is a litany of landmines to get through before you can achieve success.”

Navigating the Waters
The fact that supply chain managers are expected to do more these days probably comes as no surprise to the seasoned professional who has watched his or her job responsibilities expand over the last decade.  As more firms reach overseas to procure materials, sell products, and create partnerships, the number of global supply chains has increased exponentially.

The question is, how does a supply chain professional keep up with the educational and job requirements of the global environment? Many are looking to the array of programs—online, executive education, full-time, and more—being developed by universities and professional organizations that are focused on supply chain executive education. From short seminars to intensive, week-long programs, the number of offerings centered on the global supply chain is plentiful.

To cite one example, Penn State’s Executive Program and the Center for Supply Chain Research offer a four-day Global Supply Chain Strategies course to introduce senior-level supply chain managers to “contemporary factors and issues associated with international business and extended supply chains.”  The course covers techniques and strategies to help students master global trade management, transportation, supply chain risks, and regional supply chain issues. It also examines how to build effective teams across geographies and cultures.

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At Ohio State, the Fisher College has a global education lineup that includes both online courses and open enrollment options.  “These courses allow executives to come in and sharpen their finance, accounting, general management, leadership, and international industry partnering skills,” says Widdifield.  A leadership course, for example, helps students develop coaching, mentoring, negotiation, and conflict management skills; another track covers brand building, and customer and supplier relationship management within a global context.

To ensure a well-rounded education experience, the executive development program at Michigan State’s Broad College of Business offers a multi-pronged approach that includes seminars, online learning, international job assignments, networking sessions, and college executive education coursework. Simple steps like participating in group sessions that include a mix of national and international companies can be particularly effective, says David Frayer, the program’s director.  “The experiences allow you to network and learn from one another from both a formal and informal standpoint,” Frayer says.

Also offered are degree programs that focus on international business, says Frayer, pointing to the Global MBA as a viable option for the supply chain manager who is willing to put the time and effort into the program. “Students go out to multiple locations worldwide and gain experience from each of them,” he says. For those professionals who aren’t interested in the complete Global MBA program, he says, job rotations and international assignments can serve as a good substitute.

Ultimately, Frayer says the more varied the global education, the better.  “There really isn’t just one thing that supply chain managers can do to learn the ins and outs of the international business world,” he says. “It doesn’t matter where you’re at in your career.  The best bet is to just take conscious steps to prepare yourself to deal in the global economy, or risk being left behind.”

Global Emphasis to Intensify
As the domestic economy continues its slow rebound, expect to see even more firms reaching overseas to create ties with international partners, suppliers, and customers.  Smart supply chain managers will gain global expertise through executive education and other development programs as well as hands-on experience. Such experiences will work in tandem to create well-rounded supply chain managers who can tackle the challenges placed in front of them by both the global and domestic business environment. 

Now is the time to act, says Michigan State’s Frayer, who sees roadblocks ahead for supply chain professionals who ignore the global aspect of their jobs.  “Going forward, the need for international expertise is going to be greater and greater,” he says.  “It’s not going away anytime soon.”  What also isn’t going away is the domestic recovery’s “jobless” component.  The meaning: current supply chain professionals will likely be called upon to take on more international business responsibilities.

“Right now, we’re not seeing a lot of firms out there talking about launching global initiatives and hiring hundreds of people to run those initiatives,” says Frayer. “Instead, they’re talking about growing globally in 2011, and leveraging existing resources to help them get there.”

Education is certainly key to keeping pace in this dynamic global environment.  As we’ve noted here, the educational options around global logistics and supply chain management are growing fast.  The university listings following this article give a good representation of what’s out there.

About the Author

Bridget McCrea
Contributing Editor
Bridget McCrea is a Contributing Editor for Supply Chain Management Review based in Clearwater, Fla. She has covered the transportation and supply chain space since 1996, and has covered all aspects of the industry for Logistics Management and Supply Chain Management Review. She can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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