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Digital Talent is Key to Challenges of Supply Chain Management

By Bill Camarda

As supply chains deploy advanced technologies more widely, global supply chain managers are challenged to find a growing stream of people capable of planning, implementing, operating, and managing these technologies—while leveraging the torrents of data they generate.1

As supply chain industry association MHI and Deloitte note in the jointly produced 2019 MHI Annual Industry Report, “the digital talent gap is particularly challenging for supply chain organizations, many of which are still in a relatively early stage of [digital] maturity… [T]hey have a tremendous need for digital talent, yet their hesitancy to embrace a digital culture makes them less attractive to such talent.”2


Moreover, the digital talent gap is only part of a wider talent shortage that supply chain organizations will likely need to address to thrive in the long-term.


Emerging Tech Adds Flexibility to Global Supply Chain


Consider a few of the emerging technologies that global supply chain managers are—or soon will be—called upon to manage: robots, collaborative robots (cobots), and the Internet of Things (IoT). In many environments, these can add indispensable flexibility, productivity, and visibility as supply chain geographies, order types, and volumes keep shifting—but only if capable people are managing them.


According to ABI Research, customer demand for same-day delivery will help drive an explosion of commercial warehouse robots. Today, only 4,000 warehouses use robots. It is estimated that by 2025 more than 50,000 will. These “infrastructure-light” robots can help warehouses quickly scale operations to address volatile demand and seasonal peaks. Thanks to advances in computer vision, machine learning, and robotic mechanics, they’re also handling tasks once viewed as “harder-to-automate.”3


Other applications will rely on cobots, which are robots that serve as human’s assistants. For example, DHL is actively exploring cobot piece-picking robots to improve performance in small-batch, high-variability e-commerce fulfillment.4


IoT technology in the form of connected “smart” devices can help improve visibility in supply chains that are becoming ever more diverse and variable. Companies are increasingly using such devices to:


  • Locate objects, containers, vehicles, and personnel, and recognize traffic delays that might impact deliveries
  • Make sure products are being transported in the right conditions—e.g., at the right temperature
  • Eliminate manual inventory recounting within depots and warehouses
  • Anticipate equipment maintenance requirements
  • Automatically replenish shelves so fewer retail sales are lost because the product wasn’t there
  • Continually evaluate supplier and distributor performance and identify problems.5,6

To successfully apply these and other technologies, supply chain managers will likely have to intimately integrate technologies and humans in complex and shifting workflows, leverage torrents of new data, and work with IT and cybersecurity professionals to protect large numbers of new Internet-connected devices and their associated digital assets. Few supply chain professionals and organizations appear to have the skills to do this.


Global Supply Chain Management Not Just About Tech


The talent gap in supply chain management isn’t just about technology. Today, global supply chain managers may need to understand geopolitical and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) issues, and sometimes even help shape prototypes of future products.7


As the geopolitical environment shifts and customers evolve, global supply chain managers may find themselves responding to demands for reduced costs, faster delivery, smaller and more diverse shipments, and greater transparency.8 AT Kearney, in a 2018 report, describes a shift away from globalization and toward increasingly regionalized, or “multi-localized,” markets that operate efficiently, individually, and in sync.9


As DHL notes, “today, the ideal employee has both tactical/operational expertise and professional competencies … [and] tomorrow's talent must also excel at leadership, strategic thinking, innovation and high-level analytic[s].”10 It’s hard to find people with this robust mix of skills, DHL concludes. And in the MHI-Deloitte 2019 survey, supply chain leaders called “hiring qualified workers” their biggest challenge, with 65 percent calling it “extremely” or “very” challenging.11


Closing the Supply Chain Management Talent Gaps


To address global supply chain management talent gaps, observers suggest considering the following approaches:


  • Widen the net for management candidates. Supply chain consultant Rob Ferrari says employers often screen candidates with keywords that reflect traditional experiences that are becoming less relevant to supply chain roles. Rather, they should look “for broader capabilities and skills—including supply chain competency, but also soft skills such as the ability to learn quickly, interact, collaborate, work on a team, and lead virtual teams.”12

  • Identify new training pathways for supply chain professionals. Given an acknowledged shortage in university programs for emerging supply chain professionals, look to grow from within, with help from innovative new short-form credentials. For example, MIT’s online MicroMasters Program in Supply Chain Management helps supply chain newcomers gain foundational skills to get started, via five short courses and a final exam roughly corresponding to a single MIT semester.13 Conversely, some suggest helping promising supply chain professionals fill in knowledge gaps beyond the supply chain—for example, provide education about related emerging technologies.

  • Recognize that supply chain roles have grown more complex, strategic, and valuable. If senior leaders don’t recognize the growing role of the supply chain and tend not to encourage or respect supply chain innovation, great people leave supply chain roles, or leave the company altogether.14 Increased respect for the supply chain means providing more opportunities for growth and helps communicate to prospects that the supply chain is important work.15 Some companies even require young managers judged as having high potential to play a supply chain role as part of their development.16

  • Revisit compensation. If supply chain managers really will be building and orchestrating complex, fast-changing systems that integrate technology, people, and process for strategic competitive advantage, they’ll likely want to be paid appropriately for that.

  • Automate rote work and low-value decisions. If you’re short of talent, consider the PwC’s advice: look for opportunities to automate routine, repetitive tasks, and liberate managers for higher-value work. “As supply chains become more connected, adaptable and transparent… companies will feel more comfortable allowing technology to make decisions, automating some basic ‘no-regrets’ workflows.”17 Robotic Process Automation (RPA) can reduce the need for humans to handle tasks such as raising and processing purchase orders, responding to RFPs and quote requests and, in some cases, even answering common questions.18

  • Minimize frontline turnover. “Hourly” roles are notoriously susceptible to turnover. Consider some of the techniques DHL is using to reduce it: better onboarding and training, more scheduling flexibility, more coaching, and more attention to career paths—for example, opportunities for warehouse employees to become drivers with higher earning potential.19


Global supply chain management companies face challenges in hiring and keeping qualified talent capable of effectively managing the complex mixes of advanced technology needed to serve more individualized customer requirements and rapidly shifting regionalization. But there is a variety of creative strategies they can use to help them attract more digitally savvy and ambitious talent, reduce turnover, and make more of the talent they already have.

Bill Camarda - The Author

The Author

Bill Camarda

Bill Camarda is a professional writer with more than 30 years’ experience focusing on business and technology. He is author or co-author of 19 books on information technology and has written for clients including American Express Private Bank, Ernst & Young, Financial Times Knowledge and IBM.


1. “Supply chains struggle to find talent to fill digital skills gap,” Supply Chain Dive;
2. 2019 MHI Annual Industry Report: Elevating Supply Chain Digital Consciousness, MHI and Deloitte;
3. “Report: 50,000 warehouses to recruit robots by 2025,” Supply Chain Quarterly;
4. “DHL Looks to Collaborative Piece Picking for Flexibility, Optimizing Workforce,” Robotics Business Review;
5. “The Internet of Things (IoT) and its impact on supply chain visibility,” Zetes;
6. “How IoT Will Impact The Supply Chain,” Forbes;
7. “4 Reasons for the Supply Chain Talent Shortage,” Elementum;
8. 2019 MHI Annual Industry Report: Elevating Supply Chain Digital Consciousness, MHI and Deloitte;
9. Competing in an Age of Multi-Localism, AT Kearney;
10. The Impact of Digitalization and Status of the Supply Chain Profession Are Driving a Global Talent Shortage Crisis, DHL Supply Chain;
11. 2019 MHI Annual Industry Report: Elevating Supply Chain Digital Consciousness, MHI and Deloitte;
12. “Supply Chain Talent Shortage: What's An Industry To Do?,” Forbes/Oracle BrandVoice;
13. MicroMasters Program in Supply Chain Management, MIT;
14. “4 Reasons for the Supply Chain Talent Shortage,” Elementum; ;
15. DHL Supply Chain report identifies causes of global talent shortage crisis, PR Newswire;
16. “Supply Chain Talent Shortage: Gap or Crisis?,” Supply and Demand Chain Executive;
17. “Building the Supply Chain of the Future Starts (and Ends) With Talent,” Supply Chain Brain;
18. “How Robotic Process Automation Can Streamline Supply Chain Operations,” Blume Global;
19. “How Serious is the Holiday Supply Chain Talent Shortage and What Can We Do About It?”, Logistics Management;

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