Is there a clash between generations in supply chain talent?

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Put a group of distinguished supply chain professionals across academia and industry in a room – talent is likely to be a major topic of discussion. At Kinexions ’23, Kinaxis’s premier global conference for supply chain practitioners, the Office of Strategy hosted a “Jam Session” focused on the need to elevate supply chain talent. 

One major topic of discussion was opinions on the future leaders of supply chain, the notorious Generation Z. 

“They seem to have short attention spans...” one person noted.  

“The turnover is real. They are constantly moving to the next big thing – how can they acquire the expertise to succeed in a supply chain job if they quit so fast?” the next person noted. 

“They want system-driven processes and are shocked when our decisions are made off of Excel.” Everyone echoed in agreement. 

My role in this discussion was to capture the collective ideas and curate new insights. However, as the discussion ensued, I found myself sinking deeper into my chair. Little did everyone know, I am Gen Z.

While there was some truth to their comments, the reality is more complex. In fact, many of these generational differences are indicators of an industry undergoing rapid change. 

Different generations have human skills that need to be learned from one another. Thus, being part of a generational problem is an opportunity to be part of the solution too. It’s critical that companies consider the areas they need to improve to attract and retain employees now: According to a 2023 boom! survey about the factors today’s supply chain talent needs to succeed, 79% of companies are actively seeking entry-level candidates for supply chain roles. Below are four areas where companies have opportunities to become supply chain employers of choice.

Embracing technology and building cross-functional teams

Author Simon Sinek, proposes that what sets Generation Z apart is our status as digital natives, having grown up in a world dominated by technology. For example, the younger generations tend to be less resistant to new platforms and technology like AI. 

Failure to embrace new advancements can result in a disconnect between generations, impeding an organization’s ability to foster young talent. In the boom! survey, only 52% of respondents said their companies have the latest supply chain systems and technology needed to do their jobs effectively.

Companies often struggle with updating legacy ERP systems. Perhaps the key to doing so is to couple Gen Z’s fluency in navigating technology with guidance from experienced supply chain professionals.   
Many supply chain companies have been doing just that by undergoing digital transformation.

However, during software adoption projects, the discussion group at Kinexions cited that blending functional groups and IT teams was a significant challenge. To combat this, one suggested approach employed by a successful company involved implementing a 70/30 model of cross-functional overlap.

In this model, functional teams allocate 70% of their tasks to business-focused activities and 30% to IT-focused activities. Alternately, IT teams allocate 70% of their tasks to IT-focused activities and 30% to business-focused activities. Through this shared objective agreement and matching of responsibilities, performance is enhanced, and effective communication is facilitated enabling smoother transitions during periods of change.

Marketing the value of supply chain careers 

One comment around the table was that COVID-19 did supply chain marketing a favor. Prior to the pandemic, many people did not know what supply chain was, let alone chose to study it. Supply chain is also a broad topic – there are many types of specialties and skills needed. It’s a dynamic, multi-faceted career path.

Although more people know what supply chain is than ever before, there’s still lots of room for improvement. Those entering the workforce may not understand what they are applying for, so it is important to create a definition of what it means to be a supply chain professional to cast a wider net in the talent pool. 

Today, a blend of personalities is necessary to handle both the technical and human aspects of the supply chain planner job. While younger generations may find technology adoption and data science appealing, AI-driven advancements have the potential to automate manual tasks such as selecting forecasting models, optimizing capacity, and managing inventory levels.

However, critical thinking is the main skill needed in this field to detect when assumptions go awry. According to boom!, this is one of a few skills that businesses say younger employees need to develop more, along with resilience and adaptability. Currently, only 16% of companies are partnering with universities to enhance supply chain curriculum, according to boom!, but this is essential to cultivate necessary skill sets. There are several creative ways to engage with students interested in the profession with internships or consulting projects. Here at Kinaxis we have a supply chain game designed as an experiential learning experience where students put themselves in the seat of a supply chain planner. 

After all, gaining a comprehensive understanding of the supply chain domain goes beyond analyzing data sets. It also involves telling a story with multiple inputs of information, understanding underlying processes, operating off assumptions, and communicating effectively with others. 

Increase engagement and retention in supply chain

Repetitive SIOP meetings and tedious manual processes can easily become the arch-nemesis of any aspiring young professional’s career. Successful careers in supply chain are built off time and experience, which underscores the importance of retaining talent within organizations. To ensure long-term engagement of younger professionals, businesses might need to re-evaluate their routine processes.

One proposed solution involves adopting a short-term project-based approach, assembling teams of individuals with diverse areas of expertise to collaboratively address a specific business problem. Upon completion of a project, a fresh team is assembled for a new endeavor creating a constant exposure to novel tasks. To ensure success, pair employees with mentors with checkpoints throughout the duration of the project, as it creates a safe space to seek advice and fosters a culture of knowledge sharing.

Mentors are valuable resources for a successful career path, so it’s wise to cultivate a mentoring program within your organization. In the boom! survey, 45% of future leaders said that early in their career they didn’t have access to mentorship and another 22% had to seek a mentor out themselves.

So, it can pay to make it an integrated part of your organization’s professional development commitment. 

Finally, the younger generation report they’re seeking out employers that offer strong incentives. When surveyed by boom!, the features they most want from their employer are good compensation and benefits, but they also value the work-life balance. They prefer hybrid/flexible working arrangements and put a premium on professional development and skills training.

Closing the generational gap

The best way to understand the younger generation is to make a judgment-free effort to get to know them better. Likewise, they’ll benefit from your experience level and different perspectives. 

An overall sense of optimism and a drive to create positive change are common hallmarks of the Generation Z employee mindset. We’re motivated to learn, grow, expand our worldview, and embrace new tools to get work done more effectively. There’s so much that new talent will bring to the complex world of supply chain management in the years ahead.

Acknowledging these strengths and successfully bridging the generational gap in the supply chain industry requires a multifaceted approach combining understanding, collaboration, and adaptation. Organizations must recognize the value of each generation's unique strengths and perspectives and foster an inclusive environment with open communication. 

By actively leveraging the collective expertise of all generations, the supply chain industry can unlock innovation, drive sustainable growth, and secure a prosperous future…at least until the next generation perplexes us all again! 


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