Q&A: What happens now? Planning for the future of supply chain management

By William Phillips

November 3, 2021
8 min read

Supply-chain leaders reacted in real-time to the unprecedented challenges over the past 2 years, and they must leverage what they have learned to stay competitive as they continue navigating uncertainty.

I recently connected with Alex Hosch, Ph.D., MBA, MPM, PMP, associate professor at DeVry University; and Issam Abu-Ghallous, Ph.D., MBA, associate professor of economics at DeVry University, to discuss what the supply chain could look like 3-5 years from now, and more importantly, the steps supply chain leaders can take to prepare. Below is what they had to share:

Issam and Alex, I know you don’t have a crystal ball, but what do you think the supply chain environment will look like a few years from now?

Alex: Well, that all depends on the preparations we undertake today. We are not out of the woods, not by a long shot. That said, we’ve also learned an enormous amount about the stressors on the supply chain and where the weakest points are. That is of course specific to each industry, but it presents supply chain leaders with valuable insight into where future disruptions could occur and provides a roadmap for how to get in front of those potential issues.

So, take a hard look at your contingency plans, and if you don’t have one, create one. Do a deep dive into your tracking systems, labor force, suppliers, etc. How did they fare during the pandemic? Have you addressed the weaknesses that were exposed? Do you have an actionable plan to shore up those elements in the event of the next pandemic or global crisis? Have a plan and redundancies in place for the next supply chain shock, because it will come.

Issam: I agree with Alex. Every supply chain leader should update their contingency plans based on what we experienced throughout the pandemic. I would also add that we need to fully realize and appreciate the massive shift in consumption patterns that has happened in the last two years. How, where and why we buy - everything from toilet paper to watching movies to going to college – has changed dramatically. Some of that purchasing behavior is shifting back to pre-pandemic patterns, but much of it hasn’t. It was wishful thinking for supply chain leaders to hope that all of our purchasing habits would revert back to the predictable patterns prior to the pandemic. Those days are gone.

The challenge now for supply chain leaders is to explore what the next disruption could look like, whether from a pandemic or natural disaster or another global crisis, and make sure they are prepared as they can be for it.

Talk more about supply chain leaders who may have taken a “wait-and-see” approach. Who were counting on the “old norms” to re-establish themselves? How likely is that to happen?

Alex: I don’t recommend that. There is simply too much at stake, and the world has changed too much to hope, or expect, that life – and supply chains – will return to what they once were. The time is now to recognize and evaluate the ongoing risks, and opportunities, that the pandemic has exposed in the supply chain. There are both of course, and we have an immense amount of data and learnings to inform our future decisions. Those who have chosen to wait and see are likely to be behind when the next shock comes.

Issam: We won’t wake up and find ourselves in 2019 again. Some of the changes we’ve experienced have become permanent, others will continue to evolve. The point is to be ready. To use the data at your fingertips to bolster your people and processes both today and for whatever the future may bring. We should not live in fear or trepidation of what’s to come, but rather choose to embrace what we now know to make our supply chains stronger and more resilient.

So, I’m clearly hearing that supply chain leaders should plan for a future that could be very different from the past. Without knowing specifically what that will look like, what can supply chain leaders do now to prepare?

Alex: Know your industry. How have things shifted? Are they likely to continue to shift? Take a deep dive into what you’ve been through as an organization. Look at the purchasing patterns of your customers. How have they evolved? How will they likely continue to evolve? Do you have the systems, people and processes in place to meet this demand? If not, take action.

All of this analysis takes time. It also requires having the people on your team with the skills and capabilities to analyze the data and make meaningful insights from it all. Invest and upskill your team to ensure you have that capability. Data scientists and analysts are critical to supply chain teams going forward.

Issam: One silver lining of the pandemic was that we witnessed an enormous amount of pent-up demand (i.e., money waiting to be spent). And people have spent it when they felt safe to do so … on restaurants, travel, entertainment, the list goes on. According to a consumer trends report from McKinsey & Company, by October of 2021, nearly half of US consumers were engaging out-of-home, compared to a third back in February of that year1. This percentage is undoubtedly increasing now that the mask mandates have largely subsided. This could represent a massive economic boom for many industries, assuming the supply chains of those industries are ready for it.

To be ready, supply chain leaders should study market trends, daily if they can. That data gathering will be hugely important. What does consumer spending look like in your industry? What do your social media feeds tell you? It’s critical that supply chain leaders have the people with the skills to analyze that data in real time.

Alex: Issam makes a great point, and I’d like to add that supply chain leaders must also “protect” their teams, their most valuable asset. By that I mean provide them with the tools and resources they can use to keep growing themselves, their teams and organization. That means ensuring they have the right technology, equipment, training and skills to get the job done wherever, and however, they need to. If nothing else, the pandemic has shown us the day-to-day reality of how we work can change incredibly quickly. We need to make sure our teams have the skills to be ready for the next “seismic” change or disruption. If not, everything could fall apart again.

Issam: Let’s also not ignore the reality of the “Great Resignation,” as it has come to be known. With the stresses that have been put on supply chain teams, burnout is a real threat. Back in November of 2021, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 4.5 million quits—a record high of 3 percent. Many of those occurred in the supply chain sector.2 It is for this reason that we should take the lessons gleaned from this trend and ensure that our supply chain leaders are having meaningful conversations with their teams. Ask how they are doing. Do they feel valued? Supported? Do they have the training they need? If they are thinking about looking elsewhere, investigate why and work together to see what changes can be implemented to prevent attrition. These conversations are vital to retaining your top talent. And you’ll need the best of the best for the new world of supply chain management.

If you’re ready to explore how guided learning pathways can help prepare your team for the future of supply chain management, don’t hesitate to reach out.

About Clark Barber

Vice President, DeVryWorks

As organizations accelerate digitalization efforts, employees across every function and level must evolve. Clark Barber works alongside his team to help organizations align the right talent with relevant learning pathways to reskill for the future of work. He partners closely with admissions, student services, and academics to ensure the employee experience and learning pathways meet client expectations.

About  Issam Abu-Ghallous

By Issam Abu-Ghallous, Ph.D., MBA, Associate Professor of Economics, DeVry University

Issam earned a BA in Business Administration from Bethlehem University in Palestine, an MBA from Lewis University, and a Ph.D. in International Economic Development from the University of Southern Mississippi. Issam joined DeVry University in 2015 and is currently teaching and designing economics and international relations courses.

About Alex Hosch

Associate Professor, DeVry University and Keller Graduate School of Management

Alex Hosch worked in financial services, legal practice management, and software development for more than 25 years, prior to joining DeVry University in 2009. With an extensive background in enterprise risk management and project management, Alex is adept at procurement and financial supply chain management, and has utilized his supply chain expertise to ideate, innovate, and impact in the areas of procurement of information technology and information systems services and business information systems.

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