Student Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities for the Supply Chain Industry 4.0

Find out what emerging skills and competencies employees (students!) need to succeed in Industry 4.0.

Introduction

From a managerial perspective, we are victims or beneficiaries of a multitude of converging technologies that are changing the way business is conducted in the global supply chain (Reyes et al., 2020). This new technology-driven business environment, termed Industry 4.0, necessitates a transformation in the delivery of supply chain management (SCM) education. This creates the Education 4.0 paradigm in determining the needed tool kit of student knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) for the Industry 4.0 era (Reyes et al., 2021). To better prepare supply chain students for the transition to Industry 4.0, we surveyed supply chain professionals in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada on their views on the importance of current and emerging skills and competencies that supply chain employees should have.

Research Methodology

We extend the study by Tatham et al. (2017) and report on the KSAs valued by employers seeking to hire entry-level SCM professionals in the Industry 4.0 era. The Tatham et al. (2017) study was conducted in Australia in early 2011 shortly after the peak of the global financial crisis of 2007 to 2009. Our survey was administered in November and December 2020 during the global COVID-19 pandemic. Hence, both studies occurred during times of business turbulence. Tatham et al. (2017) used a cluster analysis to group their results into three categories developed by Teece (2007): Maintain Competitiveness (primarily functional skills), Seize Opportunities and Mitigate Threats (interpersonal skills and general management skills), and Sense and Shape Opportunities and Threats (problem solving skills). In our paper, we report on the top ten KSAs across all three categories and provide insights based on our findings. Survey respondent scores were based on a 7-point Likert scale with 7 as Very Important. Scores are in parenthesis after each KSA. 

Maintain Competitiveness (MC)

Customer Relationship Management (CRM) was the top KSA in the MC category, ranking fourth overall with a score of 6.16. Key elements of CRM include understanding the customer’s product and service requirements, thereby creating customer satisfaction and repeat business. Inventory Management (6.12) was next with an overall rank of five, illustrating the importance of having sufficient inventory to keep operations running or customers satisfied. However, students should be aware of the bullwhip effect during periods of perceived shortage as evidenced by the panic buying and subsequent hoarding that ensured across the United States when lockdowns started going into effect. Third in the MC category, and eighth overall, was Supplier Relationship Management (6.06). The final KSA in MC was Procurement (6.05), which ranked ninth overall. Though Tatham et al. (2017) used Purchasing in their 2011 survey, we opted for the more strategic and current term of Procurement.

Customer Relationship Management and Supplier Relationship Management (SRM) are considered general management skills, while Inventory Management and Procurement are functional skills. In the Tatham et al. (2017) study, no functional KSAs were included in their top ten KSAs, yet in our study, Inventory Management and Procurement have increased in importance. Note that all four of these KSAs in MC are connected to inventory – getting the customer what they require (CRM), getting what is needed from suppliers (SRM and Procurement), and properly managing inventory along the supply chain (Inventory Management). However, these results are influenced by our respondents as 71% indicated their area of responsibility as Procurement (46%) or Inventory Planning and Control (15%).

Seize Opportunities and Mitigate Threats (SOMT)

Our top KSA in the SOMT category was Listening (6.31), which was tied for first overall. Listening is important so that it is clearly understood what the customer wants and what the supplier can do. Internally, Listening is also necessary so that employees properly follow the boss’s instructions and that information from colleagues is fully understood. Active listening facilitates clarification questions and overall task efficiency. The second KSA in SOMT is Leadership (6.17), third overall. Effective Leadership ensures that team projects are satisfactorily completed on time and can act as an indicator of promotion potential. The final KSA in the SOMT category is Oral Communication (6.01), tenth overall. Oral Communication is not Presentation skills (5.67 in our survey) since Presentations can be practiced. Instead, Oral Communication is akin to an unscripted conversation with anyone the employee is in voice contact with.

Listening, Leadership and Oral Communication are all considered interpersonal skills, and all three are related to people. Seventy-two percent of our respondents indicated a title of Manager (34%), Staff Specialist (26%), or Supervisor (12%), and these are the people roles in the organization that our students are most likely to be in contact with when they start their jobs and as they work their way to positions of more responsibility. Text messages and lengthy emails are not effective ways to actively communicate with supply chain partners, employees, and colleagues. The capability to Seize Opportunities and Mitigate Threats can only be deployed when employees have strong interpersonal skills and lead from the floor, not from a keyboard in the office.

Robust class discussion and cold calling are techniques that can help students develop stronger Listening and Oral Communication skills. If journal articles are used to supplement course topics, a random selection of n students can be chosen to present important article take-aways to the rest of the class. This ensures students read the articles and puts them ‘on-the-spot’ to communicate their findings to their classmates. Flipped classrooms can also be used. In a flipped classroom for quantitative classes, Swart and Wuensch (2016) found that “Students feel that they have learned more, have made better progress toward their learning goals, and are more satisfied with their experience in the flipped classroom than they think they would have been if they had taken the course in a traditional classroom” (p. 83). The authors identified a higher degree of interaction between students working together and between students and the instructor, creating a better learning environment for students.

Team projects and assignments have long been used as a method to facilitate all three interpersonal skills, especially Leadership skills. One of the authors teaches a course on Corporate Social Responsibility in the Global Supply Chain where student teams work at their tables on short (15-30 minutes), non-graded exercises throughout the semester. One student from each team then takes the lead in presenting the teams’ findings. This type of activity allows students to develop interpersonal skills while focusing on a business-related objective.

Sense and Shape Opportunities and Threats (SSOT)

The SSOT category had only four KSAs, yet three of them were ranked in the top ten. Problem Solving (6.31) was tied for first overall (with Listening) and is reflective of the dynamics of today’s supply chain. Second in the SSOT category was Problem Identification (6.11), sixth overall, and third was Problem Analysis (6.10), seventh overall.

COVID-19 has caused massive disruptions in numerous global supply chains, impacting supply chain professionals with an array of unexpected problems that require immediate solutions. Many of these problems are also unstructured, thereby requiring a high degree of creativity and teamwork to solve. Interestingly, our results show Problem Identification and Problem Analysis to have slightly lower scores than Problem Solving. This is a potential indication that someone else (customer, supplier, boss, colleague) has identified the problem and conducted some analysis, and has passed the problem off to a now responsible employee.

Case studies that focus on multiple issues and have both quantitative and qualitative decision variables are good assignments to help students further develop their SSOT KSAs. Simulations such as the Beer Game (Sterman, 1989) and its’ extensions (Jacobs, 2000; Chen and Samroengraja, 2000; and Reyes, 2007) as well as simulations introduced by Webb et al. (2014) and Angolia and Pagliari (2018) can be utilized to illustrate the complexities of decision making in the supply chain.

While case studies and simulations have useful learning applications, a better approach to developing the KSAs in the SSOT category is engaging students in real-world team projects with industry partners. Roethlein et al. (2021) provide an in-depth discussion for a supply chain capstone consulting course where student teams work to solve problems the companies need to address. Many of the projects involve a variety of supply chain topics that require students to integrate multiple KSAs to deliver recommendations that generate positive projected savings. Student surveys indicate high levels of increased competence, increased overall knowledge, and being challenged intellectually. 

Top Ten KSA Summary

The emergence of big data and business analytics is creating a significant impact on Industry 4.0 as firms seek to hire talent in information technology, quantitative methods, and decision sciences. Individuals who can interpret the data analysis and can then translate the output to making operational and strategic decisions based on the data can drive the business will be in demand.

From a SCM professional perspective, functional SCM KSAs are important to effectively navigate a turbulent business environment and Maintain Competitiveness. These functional skills are often taught as a topic in an introductory course or as a full elective course. KSAs for Sizing Opportunities and Mitigating Threats mostly pertain to managerial soft skills such as listening, leadership, and oral communication. Finally, top KSAs for Sensing and Shaping Opportunities and Threats consist of problem solving, problem identification, and problem analysis. See Table 1 for a list of the top ten KSAs, their category, and skill group.

Conclusion

An important take-away from our top ten scorings KSAs is how interconnected they are – which is very true of a global supply chain. Though course materials, assignments, cases, and pedagogical games can be used to introduce students to various KSAs throughout a course, it is more important to integrate multiple KSAs into a learning moment. This will ensure our students take a multi-view, systems perspective when going through the decision-making process.

In addition to data collected for the three Tatham et al. (2017) categories, we also queried respondents on 20 KSAs across four new categories. Within these KSAs, Teamwork (6.39) was the top overall KSA in our entire survey. This makes sense because in the work environment everyone is part of the same team – whether it is your external supply chain partners or your internal colleagues. The work you do affects others and vice-versa. Moreover, the adage “two heads are better than one” is certainly applicable for managing the complexities and challenges of today’s supply chain.

As educators, it is important to help our students develop the necessary KSAs valued by employers seeking to hire entry-level SCM professionals in the Industry 4.0 era. Our research study focused on the supply chain employee skills and competencies for the Industry 4.0 era, and as it transitions to the digitalization of supply chains. By adapting our supply chain curriculum to the critical KSAs of Industry 4.0, we can better prepare our students for entry-level and future leadership roles in Industry 4.0.   

References

Angolia, Mark G. and Leslie R. Pagliari, 2018. “Experiential Learning for Logistics and Supply Chain Management using an SAP ERP Software Simulation,” Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education, 16 (2), 104-125.

Fangruo Chen and Rungson Samroengraja, 2000. “The Stationary Beer Game,” Production and Operations Management, 9 (1), 19-30.

Jacobs, F. Robert, 2000. “Playing the Beer Distribution Game over the Internet,” Production and Operations Management, 9 (1), 31-39.

Reyes, Pedro M., 2007. “Parallel Interaction Supply Chain: An Extension of the Beer Game,” Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education, 5 (2), 413-421.

Reyes, Pedro M., John K. Visich, and Patrick P. Jaska, 2020. “Managing the Dynamics of New Technologies in the Global Supply Chain,” Engineering Management Review, 48 (1), 156-162.

Reyes, Pedro M., Michael J. Gravier, Christopher J. Roethlein and John K. Visich, 2021. “Supply Chain Employee Skills and Competencies for Industry 4.0,” 50th Annual Meeting of the Northeast Decision Sciences Institute, March 26-27, Virtual.

Roethlein, Christopher J., Teresa M. McCarthy, John K. Visich, Suhong Li, Michael J. Gravier, 2021. “Developing a Distinctive Consulting Capstone Course in a Supply Chain Curriculum,” Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education, 19 (2), 117-128.

Sterman, John D., 1989. “Modelling Managerial Behavior: Misperceptions of Feedback in a Dynamic Decision Making Experiment,” Management Science, 35 (3), 321-339.

Swart, William and Karl L. Wuensch, 2016. “Flipping Quantitative Classes: A Triple Win,” Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education, 14 (1), 67-89.

Tatham, Peter, Yong Wu, Gyöngyi Kovács and Tim Butcher, 2017. “Supply Chain Management Skills to Sense and Seize Opportunities,” The International Journal of Logistics Management, 28 (2), 266-289.

Teece, David J., 2007. “Explicating Dynamic Capabilities: The Nature and Microfoundations of (Sustainable) Enterprise Performance”, Strategic Management Journal, 28 (13), 1319-1350.

Webb, G. Scott, Stephanie P. Thomas and Sara Liao-Troth, 2014. “Teaching Supply Chain Management Complexities: A SCOR Model Based Classroom Simulation,” Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education, 12 (3), 181-198.

Table 1. Top Ten KSAs

KSA

Score

Category

Skill

Problem Solving

6.31

SSOT

Problem Solving

Listening

6.31

SOMT

Interpersonal

Leadership

6.17

SOMT

Interpersonal

Customer Relationship Mgmt.

6.16

MC

General Management

Inventory Mgmt.

6.12

MC

Functional

Problem Identification

6.11

SSOT

Problem Solving

Problem Analysis

6.10

SSOT

Problem Solving

Supplier Relationship Mgmt.

6.06

MC

General Management

Procurement

6.05

MC

Functional

Oral Communication

6.01

SOMT

Interpersonal

About the authors

John K. Visich is a Professor of Operations Management and Global Supply Chain Management at Bryant University. He has a Ph.D. in Operations Management from the University of Houston. He is a four-time finalist in the DSI Best Teaching Case Award Competition, winning in 2011 and 2014. He has received the Outstanding MBA Professor Award 6 times from Bryant University MBA students and an Honorable Mention Award in 2014 for the Page Prize for Environmental Sustainability Curriculum.

 

Pedro M. Reyes is an Associate Professor of Operations & Supply Chain Management at Baylor University. He is recognized by UTA as a Lawrence Schkade Research Fellow and is an associate editor for the Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education. Reyes is the faculty mentor for the National Undergraduate Supply Chain Case Competition Team. He is also the author of Global Supply Chain Management (Hercher Publishing Inc.) and RFID in the Supply Chain (McGraw-Hill).

Dr. Chris Roethlein is a Professor at Bryant University where he teaches courses in operations and supply chain management. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Rhode Island. His research interests include quality and communication within a supply chain, additive manufacturing, and teaching pedagogy. He has published in Interfaces,Supply Chain Management: An International Journal, Quality Management Journal, and others. He has won the DSI Best Teaching Case Award Competition twice (2011 and 2014). In 2019, he received the Alumni Association’s Annual Distinguished Faculty Award from Bryant University.

Michael J. Gravier is Professor of Marketing and Global Supply Chain Management at Bryant University. He has over 25 years of logistics experience both in industry and as an academic. He earned a Ph.D. in Marketing and Logistics from the University of North Texas and an M.S. in Logistics Management from the Air Force Institute of Technology. Michael’s research focuses on public procurement, supply chain pedagogy, and supply chain technology. In 2017 he won the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals international case competition.