Making the Case for Custom Executive Education

Campbell’s Soup did it to improve the agility of its worldwide supply chain. Coca-Cola used it to enhance its supply chain leadership and provide better end-to-end global supply chain integration. Johnson & Johnson leveraged it to develop a network of professionals focused on continuous improvement. These are just three examples of how organizations have used custom executive education programs to improve their C-suite and senior-level executives’ knowledge, skill sets and expertise in the rapidly-evolving supply chain industry.

Learning experiences that are tailored to a specific organization’s needs, custom executive education is proliferating in supply chain, where many leaders and managers came up through the ranks of their firms without any formal education in the discipline. Combine these realities with the many changes taking place on the e-commerce and omni-channel fronts, and the need for a customized educational approach becomes that much greater.

"The term ‘supply chain’ only dates back about 20 years, with the first graduates with formal degrees in the field emerging around 2002 from a handful of schools," points out, Steve Tracey executive director for Penn State Executive Programs and the Center for Supply Chain Research, points out. "And while more schools have popped up since then, supply chain as a profession remains a fairly recent phenomenon."

Once the domain of large companies with very specific supply chain education needs, custom or "tailored" options have come of age and are now applicable for a wider swath of organizations. In most cases, these high-impact learning experiences involve just one company’s executives, last from eight weeks to 12 weeks, and include a mix of offline and online curriculum—the latter of which is coming of age in today’s digitized world.

What does it look like?

According to Tracey, customized educational programs help fill a gap that’s opening up as supply chain continues its progression from a back-office function to one that creates both strategic and operational value for companies of all sizes. "There are still many firms that, regardless of whether they’re centralized or decentralized, have the different supply chain functions separated from one another from a governance standpoint," Tracey says.

The more progressive private and public organizations, on the other hand, recognize that supply chain is an end-to-end function that requires extended coordination across suppliers, customers and the company itself. As more of those wake-up calls happen, a growing number of firms are turning to custom executive education to bring their leaders and managers up to speed on the most relevant, company-centric points.

At least part of this trend is being driven by a lack of recent college graduates holding supply chain and logistics degrees. "There aren’t enough existing professionals or new graduates to be able to fulfill all of those needs at this point," says Tracey. "Because it’s going to remain that way for the foreseeable future, we’re seeing strong demand for training and education that’s unique to individual firms; that’s where custom programs come in."

Delivery methods

In many cases, custom executive education is delivered at the company’s site, although more online coursework is being added in order to create a more hybrid approach that doesn’t require professionals to sit in a classroom all day. Customized to a specific company’s needs, the education takes on different faces, depending on the firm in question. For example, one organization may want to move its supply chain from being a functional/tactical application to a more streamlined, strategic entity.

"For some of these organizations, that could mean taking tens, hundreds or even thousands of people globally from functional to strategic thinking," Tracey explains. To achieve that goal, those myriad employees would have to think more collaboratively, work from the same playbook, and figure out the answers to questions like: How does my role in demand fulfillment, physical warehousing, or forecasting impact the company’s overall customer service and cash-to-cash cycle?

"To answer questions like this you need a common base of training and education, so that everyone—and particularly, professionals who have no formal education in supply chain management—understands the holistic picture," says Tracey, who adds that a transportation expert may have his or her own department "locked down," but may not necessarily know what the inventory department is doing. "They’re entrenched in what they’re doing and what they know, but they’re not always familiar with the other areas of the company."

That’s where custom executive education comes in. By combining supply chain curriculum with a company’s specific needs, it helps organizations bring their senior and C-level executives up to speed in a fast-and-focused manner. At CorpU, CEO Alan Todd says this tailored approach typically encompasses an 18-module, online curriculum that’s "plugged together to solve different problems," and to help supply chain leaders drive some type of change effort.

"It could be transformational change, as in the case of Campbell Soup, which wanted to improve its agility," says Todd, "or like Coca-Cola, which was intent on providing end-to-end supply chain integration across the world." For these and other firms, CorpU starts with the 18-module approach and then tweaks and tunes that coursework to meet the company’s specific needs. In some cases, the educational provider will also "blend in" some program work from sources like the University of Michigan or West Point.

The end result is a tailored executive education offering that helps fulfill the modern-day company’s need to be more agile, flexible, and fast. "We hear that from just about every customer in supply chain right now," says Todd, "and it’s really forcing them to go digital at speed and scale. Ultimately, they’ve got to squeeze cost out of those supply chain networks, and they’ve got to get them operating faster."

"We want to train our employees"

Rather than sitting around hoping that a seasoned, knowledgeable supply chain professional will come walking through the door, organizations are taking a proactive approach to training and educating their current executives and leaders on the fine points of the digital supply chain. To get this done in the most economical, efficient manner possible, more of those firms are turning to outside providers for help in developing their customized supply chain education.

"We hear from firms that would normally train their rising executives in-house, or at their own special facilities, but just can’t afford that approach anymore," says James B. Rice, Jr., deputy director at MIT’s Center for Transportation and Logistics (CTL). "So, they decide to do everything online and they come to us for help." From the Center, those companies can get a 12-week program that’s customized to their needs.

In another example, Rice worked with an organization that wanted to send its executives to CTL for a hands-on experience, but also wanted to deliver some of the education online. "In our experience," he says, "there’s a big benefit that comes when these companies do a bit of ‘mixing,’ with their custom education." That "mixing" has gained in popularity over the last 2-3 years as more companies started asking for it, and as organizations like CTL started creating a large amount of online educational content for the supply chain arena.

Today, CTL has five full courses that equate to a single semester, with executives earning MicroMasters credentials. "We’re happy to take any combination of about 500 different online videos and use it to create a custom program," says Rice. "It can be very technically-oriented (e.g., demand periods in the retail business), or we can pull out the technical content and develop a platform that includes engaging practice problems. We let companies pick and choose from among those options."

At APICS, executive vice president Peter Bolstorff is also seeing strong demand for custom executive education programs. Tailored to both executives who oversee the end-to-end supply chain (vice presidents of supply chain); functional leaders who oversee one or more processes (director of logistics); and "gold collar" leaders (who oversee S&OP or process governance), this executive education centers on a simple question: What is keeping supply chain leaders up at night?

Last year, for example, an APICS survey found that most of those leaders are concerned about agility, responsiveness, innovation and data security. They’re also worried about changing, the proliferation of consumer-centric business models and the ongoing need to find and grow supply chain talent in the gig economy. To help companies address these pain points, APICs has developed tailored coursework centered on achieving operational excellence; implementing supply chain improvements; and building an effective and efficient supply chain organization, among others.

Speaking to companies that want to use custom executive education with their supply chain leaders, Bolstorff says the most successful initiatives are usually top-down and performance-focused. They center on specific problems (i.e., what are we attempting to solve through this learning?), and take a collaborative approach to improving skillsets, introducing new topics, providing practical examples, and then using key metrics to measure the program’s success. "The most important thing to have is a burning platform focused on moving the performance needle," says Bolstorff "with that particular learning experience."

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