Educating supply chain planners to communicate persuasively

This past year, I feel like the sands are starting to shift in companies and many are finally starting to embrace the vital importance of educating their people in supply chain. Recent experiences designing and delivering supply chain education to multinationals across Europe have given me lots of valuable insights that I wanted to share as you consider what matters for 2013.

One debate that comes up regularly in the press and at conferences is the need to educate executives about supply chain so that this vital function gets more attention and sponsorship in companies. But when you start to explore this issue, there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye.

Talent shortage

The respected analyst Lora Cecere of Supply Chain Insights recently wrote about the talent shortage in her Supply Chain Shaman blog and it’s well worth a read. She specifically points to a talent shortage in middle management.

But hold on a minute, you might reasonably say, “I thought the problem was that the executives are not getting supply chain?”

When we examined the problem of senior executives not grasping supply chain issues more closely, one of the root causes we identified was actually that middle managers and supply chain teams lacked both the skills and confidence to communicate effectively and make compelling arguments to senior executives. This is simply not a skill in which the typical planner is trained, either at University or work. A staggering number we spoke to had never had to give a presentation to a small group of peers!

This goes a long way towards explaining why professionals in commercial and marketing always seem to get the ear of the CEO. It’s not that they’re smarter, per se; they just have better honed skills in making business cases and the subtle art of persuasion.

Resistance and opposition

Part of the work we’ve been doing with clients this year has sought to redress that balance. Of course, we still need to educate people in critical supply chain areas like inventory management and demand planning. And yes, we still need to educate senior executives. However, some of the most rewarding and transformative work has been in educating, coaching and mentoring middle management-level planners on how to communicate more effectively and persuasively with their business colleagues.

One very important skill we teach people is to know the difference between resistance and opposition to change, when trying to sell an idea. Resistance can be overcome through more intense communications and in-depth education, because lack of understanding is always the root cause of resistance. But opposition is active obstruction. Obstruction can only be overcome by learning how to play politics. When someone is obstructing your initiative, you have to out-number them, and sometimes the only solution is to involve an executive sponsor.

Spreadsheet-land

Listening skills are also vital. Demand planners, for example, need to get out there and talk to customers and salespeople to find out what they’re seeing in the market, but too often they’re isolated in spreadsheet-land!

This quote from one of our clients’ commercial director sums up the benefits of training planners better than any argument I can make: “I’ve attended many boring meetings in this room. I never thought that the most engaging presentation I would hear in this room was going to come from a demand planner!”

If you have any doubts about whether it’s worth investing in supply chain and communications skills for your middle managers, consider this: one of our clients has already reported saving £27 million due to its education programme, before even starting to implement new software. If that doesn’t give you reason to at least consider investing in your people in 2013 I’m not sure what will!

Alain Vix is Account Director at Supply Chain Planning specialist Hughenden Consulting.  www.HughendenConsulting.com