Talent and the 50 Shades of Gray of Supply Chain

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I’m a ‘numbers guy’ and tend to gloss over ‘fluffy’ things like talent. Of course I understand and endorse the three-legged stool of People-Process-Technology and the need to keep the stool balanced by developing all the legs. Consequently when the panel on talent at the recent Supply Chain Insights Summit was introduced I was only paying partial attention.  My bad. You can watch a full replay using this link. What I found was that the panel was rich is diagnosis and short in insights. There was too much description of the problem and not enough of the solution.  The panel did discuss what some firms are doing to recruit, train, and retain talent, but I was looking for that elusive notion of what is talent and how do we nurture it?  I am sure there were many line managers in the audience who would have found the panel very useful, and Lora Cecere of Supply Chain Insights (SCI) has written quite often about the need for T-shaped people, meaning having the ability to see the ‘big’ or end-to-end picture and deep functional capabilities. But I was still struggling with what is talent and what talents are needed in supply chain.  More on this later. The raw numbers are sobering: There are 6 open positions for every recruit and the time it is taking to fill positions is increasing.  What I find interesting in this context is how the empty roles have changed over the past 2 years in which SCI has been conducting a talent survey. While there are nuances, the clear message is that it is middle-management where the biggest gaps lie. The biggest change is in the difficulty of finding people to fill an S&OP manager role. To me this is a clear indication of the increased importance of the end-to-end or horizontal capabilities rather than the deep functional capabilities.  Soft skills too, but also hard skills such as Finance.  


  My question to the panel was: “given that none of you have a degree in Supply Chain Management, and neither do most of the audience, what training/education is required to be successful in Supply Chain and what inherent capabilities are required for T-shaped people?” The training/education part was answered very well in that there are any number of universities and colleges that now offer courses in Supply Chain Management. Lora has also addressed this very well in one of her blogs: What do we do now?  The T-shaped part was more intriguing in that the answer, curiously, identified more of a mindset than a capability.  And it set me thinking. Way back in in 2011 Lora wrote a blog “Yes, Abby, there is a Santa Claus” about the different generations of supply chain professionals. It is Lora’s contention that we are in the 3rd generation, whereas Lora and I are clearly in the 2nd generation. But I was also interested in the summarized advice Lora gave Abby in her blog:

  • Get good at math
  • It starts with clarity of strategy
  • Take what you have learned in school with a grain of salt
  • Learn to ask the hard questions, but nicely
  • Learn to dance with the world of gray

All sage advice, but not enough for me. I guess what I am really struggling with is an existential moment of my own, rather than having any issue with the content of the panel and the advice given to Abby by Lora nearly 3 years ago. Perhaps the real issue is that I am struggling with a supply chain mid-life crisis. Lora states that

“The second generation of supply chain professional (ages 35-50) is where we are currently seeing the greatest talent issues.  This is the generation that implemented ERP, ecommerce, and Advanced Planning Systems (APS). They were often the boots on the ground for the global supply chain.  Many of them were pioneers:  relocating their families and learning the nuances of global supply chain management the hard way.”

Definitely true for me. I was one of those who moved around the world implementing APS.  And I think the core of my existential crisis is that I no longer believe in the over-stated promise of ERP, ecommerce, and APS. At the time the claims did not seem over-stated. We genuinely believed that science and maths could solve the issue, but we forgot the advice above that Lora gave to Abby, principally that we need to “Learn to Dance with the World of Gray”. We were taught in our Engineering and Operations Research classes that you just needed to refine your model or get better data. There was never any suggestion that the approach itself was wrong. No-one taught us that strategic objectives are very mushy and change frequently. Or that customers change their minds constantly and expect to still receive the same customer service at the same price.  Or many other factors that make the supply chain world very gray.  It is about nuance and ambiguity, but so many of us still believe it is about certainty and precision, about reducing complexity and not about embracing complexity.  I’m hoping the new generation has a more nuanced view. Speaking of generations, I came across a really interesting blog through one of my ex-i2 buddies, Amit Paranjape. The blog titled “Why Generation-Y Yuppies are unhappy” clearly identifies the core of why the SCI Summit talent panel didn’t address my existential issue:

I genuinely bought into the hype and promise of the value companies were going to achieve through the deployment of ERP, ecommerce, and APS solutions. I too was taught that

“…there was nothing stopping them from getting to that lush, green lawn of a career, but that they'd need to put in years of hard work to make it happen.


Of course I am referring is this context to the lush green lawn of productivity improvement brought about by years of hard work to deploy ERP, ecommerce, and APS solutions. In other words I am suffering from an expectations gap of over promising and under delivering.


If I got a do-over I would focus much more on helping people understand the limitation of what they can achieve through maths and much more on the value of compromise, consensus, and collaboration. Of course I still advocate having hard facts to back up a decision, I take these as a given, but I would focus more on the trade-offs across competing objectives and across functional silos. In other words I am not suggesting that we all rip out the APS solutions that we have deployed over the past 20-odd years and do everything with an abacus or Excel. What I am suggesting is additive. It is about the social side of making decisions as well as the skills to make decisions under uncertainty. In summary, I agree that we need T-shaped people, as long as this means that they understand that there is no one answer. That there is no right answer, and definitely not an optimal answer that gets spat out by a computer with little or no human judgment involved.  There is a better answer, which is achieved through compromise, consensus, and collaboration, backed by hard facts which no-one can dispute.  I guess this means that I agree with the advice Lora gave to Abby. But if I had to rank the advice Lora gave to Abby I would use the following order:

  1. It starts with clarity of strategy
  2. Learn to dance with the world of gray
  3. Get good at math
  4. Take what you have learned in school with a grain of salt
  5. Learn to ask the hard questions, but nicely

What is not included in Lora’s list but came out in the panel is “be curious”. Stated differently, learning is a continuous journey, and SCM is still evolving.


Kyle Ephraim
- October 01, 2013 at 3:44pm
Great article! As a student at the University at Buffalo seeking a degree in Business Admin with a concentration in SCM, this article was very encouraging and very helpful! I like the idea of T-Shaped people! Makes sense to me to be both broad and deep in my knowledge, and I hope to get there soon!

Thanks for the article.

Kyle Ephraim
Trevor Miles
- October 01, 2013 at 3:56pm
Great to hear Kyle. It is an exciting time to be getting into SCM. Good luck with the degree.

Trevor Miles
- October 02, 2013 at 11:05am
A friend asked me if this is what I mean by a T-Shaped person: https://encrypted-tbn2.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcS5IuNGkjLSddwC0nOrnT9D_MsW4oKlLExrQ0DRuonf0dHcjkAPJ80pDpTZ

Funny, but not quite what I meant.
Kyle Ephraim
- October 02, 2013 at 11:17am
Haha! Yeah, that's me.

Kyle Ephraim

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