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4 Innovative Supply Chain Education Trends

An evolution in supply chain education is underway—is your team ready for it?
By Bridget McCrea
February 04, 2016

As educational delivery methods morph, and as the requirements associated with supply chain careers evolve, the ways in which students receive supply chain executive education are also changing with the times. From massive open online courses (MOOCs) to education developed by universities in concert with third-party providers, to courses that transcend foundational concepts and technical knowledge, the supply chain education landscape in 2016 looks much different than it did just five to 10 years ago. Following are four key trends that supply chain managers and their employees should keep an eye on during the upcoming year.

I Do: The Marriage of College and Third-party Providers
For years, companies have pooled their efforts with institutions of higher education to develop tailored executive education programs. Pennsylvania State University’s Smeal College of Business broke new ground in 2015 when it joined forces with CorpU of Mechanicsburg, Pa., to create a new, supply chain-focused, and connected learning program. Alan Todd, CorpU’s CEO, says the idea to partner with Penn State was based on the growing demand for supply chain content on the part of companies. “We continue to see large organizations that are looking to drive end-to-end supply chain integration,” says Todd. “They are searching for better ways to do that quickly and on a large, global scale.”

The first massive open online course, or “MOOC,” made its way onto the educational scene back in 2008 as a model for delivering learning content online to any person who wants to take a course, with no limit on attendance.

To build the new offering, Supply Chain Leadership Academy, Todd’s team worked with Penn State to “reinvent everything the university was doing” from scratch and then adapt it for delivery on a virtual platform. The result was a full 18 weeks of supply chain related programming. Live since early 2015, the platform has been well received by companies, says Todd, who sees particularly high interest from firms that previously “sent people off to classroom learning.”

Steve Tracey, the executive director of Penn State’s Center for Supply Chain Research, concurs and says the platform has helped the school deliver strategic and collaborative education online to the masses. Tracey says he was already thinking about a better way to deliver a cost-effective, scalable supply chain education to global organizations when CorpU came calling. “They were looking for a content provider at the same time that we were searching for a platform idea,” says Tracey. “It was serendipitous.”

In terms of infrastructure, the platform was built by CorpU and populated with Penn State’s supply chain content. “We adapted our learning materials to [CorpU’s] instructional design, which was different than traditional delivery mechanisms,” says Tracey, who adds that the program has been widely accepted by companies. “Adoption has been much better than any of us expected,” says Tracey. “The demand for supply chain courses and this delivery mechanism is robust. It’s really nice to have a product that’s at the forefront, in high need, and that companies have adopted so readily.”

Getting “Massive” Online
The first massive open online course, or “MOOC,” made its way onto the educational scene back in 2008 as a model for delivering learning content online to any person who wants to take a course, with no limit on attendance. These interactive learning spaces have not only eradicated limits on the number of students who can attend a course, they have also helped to create a very scalable and affordable way to deliver all types of education – supply chain executive education included. Chris Caplice, executive director of MIT’s Center for Transportation and Logistics in Cambridge, says MOOCs are yet another way to dispel the myth that learning takes place “between the ages of 18 and 22 in a classroom setting.”

“MOOCs change the way education can be delivered,” Caplice adds. “Rather than sitting face-to-face with a teacher for 90 minutes, students can use MOOCs on a piecemeal basis.” Within the supply chain sector, Caplice says that MIT started by created three different curriculums (fundamentals, design, and dynamics). In 2015, the school rolled out a new MicroMasters Program, with the Supply Chain Credential as its first offering under that umbrella. Students complete five online courses and then take a capstone exam in exchange for about 42 credit hours, says Caplice.

MOOCs allow professionals who can’t afford to take one or two years off from work to earn their graduate degrees on their own timelines. Conversely, Caplice adds, MOOCs also “open a path whereby students can get a degree within a much shorter time frame,” if so desired. The flexible nature of the MOOC extends right down to the individual video level, where students can watch presentations at “1.5 times to 2 times the normal speed,” he says. “That provides a lot more flexibility in terms of how you watch, when you watch, and how you consume the education online. You don’t have that in real life.”

Acknowledging the fact that “not everything can be taught online,” Caplice sees supply chain MOOCs as a viable substitute for most in-person classes or other types of online education. And while the online learning space is growing year over year, a hybrid approach (part online/part classroom) continues to reign in the supply chain executive education realm. “Learning how to interact with and influence your suppliers and customers can be tough via an online course,” he notes. “That’s why I like the combined program, where you can learn the analytical and technical material online ahead of time, and then come here for some soft skills, team-building, and case studies.”

Executive education is evolving to meet the growing needs of supply chain executives and to bridge the knowledge gaps required to take organizations to the next level of performance.

Accelerated Pace of Online Learning
As Don Klock, professor, supply chain management at Rutgers Business School, looks around at the supply chain space, he sees a sector that was once reluctant to rely on virtual learning and preferred in-person, classroom interactions. That sentiment has changed significantly over the last few years, says Klock, who now sees an acceleration of movement into the online training space. He says the trend is especially obvious every time he logs into his Gmail account. “I’m a supply chain guy and Google knows this from my cookies,” says Klock. “Every time I log in I get an advertisement for a new educational offering from some institution.”

Driven in part by companies that need easier, cheaper, and more accessible educational options for their employees, and partially by the schools and providers that are answering that call, the acceleration in online education won’t let up anytime soon. As one of the first schools to offer a Master of Science in Supply Chain, Rutgers is also one of many institutions of higher education that are helping students answer the question, “Why do I have to sit in a classroom to learn this?”

But what about all of the networking that takes place in the offline educational setting? Can that be replicated in the online environment? Despite what some might assume, Klock thinks that it can be. “Just look at LinkedIn; that’s a network,” says Klock. “While the physical classroom is more interactive than a virtual one, the latter is getting closer and closer to becoming a networking hub.”

Besides, Klock adds, an experienced supply chain professional that’s taking executive education courses probably already has a solid network of his or her own in place. As a result, there isn’t a pressing need to get into a new environment and collect business cards anymore. “You don’t have to drive two hours to a classroom of 60 people to meet new contacts and network with them,” he says. “Between your own network and the one that’s online, that piece is pretty much covered.” 

From Technical to Soft Skills: Supply Chain Education Evolution
As an industry, education providers in the supply chain sector have become pretty proficient at developing curriculums focused on technical and functional competencies. Now, says Abe Eshkenazi, CEO at Chicago-based APICS, supply chain professionals are being asked to assume executive leadership roles, take responsibility for teams, handle budgets, and impact outcomes. “That involves a very different skillset for someone who once relied on his or her technical and functional skills,” Eshkenazi points out. “To adapt to this shift, professionals are having to hone their leadership and/or advanced management skills.”

At the organizational level, Eshkenazi says large companies are using more rotational programs (i.e., positions that allow employees to gain insight and experience by rotating through a variety of areas within a company over a specific time period) and leadership development programs. The former gives individuals a perspective across the “entirety of the supply chain,” says Eshkenazi, “and helps them understand the various aspects of supply chain within the organization.” Through this experience, individuals also develop relationships and gain hands-on appreciation of what every function handles within the overall company.

On the association and academic side of the equation, Eshkenazi says providers are putting a much greater emphasis on helping students develop advanced management skills. Via a partnership with the American Society of Transportation and Logistics (AST&L), for example, APICS is investing in a new program focused on logistics, transportation, and distribution. Eshkenazi says the new educational offerings will be available during the second quarter of 2016, with a related certification following during the third quarter of the year.

Singling out logistics as one of the largest growing fields within the supply chain, Eshkenazi says educational providers are working to fill in the gaps that exist between “book” or learned knowledge and the practical tasks that supply chain professionals perform on a daily basis. Ultimately, he says the best approach is to look at the supply chains not as a series of segmented steps, but as a single, integrated activity.

“The individuals responsible for this activity must understand the totality of it – including the design, planning, sourcing, making, delivering, returning, and customer support,” says Eshkenazi. “This transcends some of the technical capabilities that [providers] have been teaching. Education needs to think beyond that.”

These are just four examples of how executive education is evolving to meet the growing needs of supply chain executives and to bridge the knowledge gaps required to take organizations to the next level of performance. It is a dynamic area, and professionals can expect to see more innovations in 2016 and beyond.


About the Author

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Bridget McCrea
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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