Thomas, R. (2014), "In modern supply chains, the soft stuff is the hard stuff", International Journal of Physical Distribution & Logistics Management, Vol. 44 No. 6. https://doi.org/10.1108/IJPDLM-05-2014-0100Download as .RIS
Emerald Group Publishing Limited
In modern supply chains, the soft stuff is the hard stuff
Article Type: Editorial From: International Journal of Physical Distribution & Logistics Management, Volume 44, Issue 6
As an applied discipline that routinely interacts with industry professionals, supply chain research must evolve and meet the constantly changing needs of industry. At a recent academic conference, the key note speaker was an industry executive with responsibility for the corporation's supply chain. During his remarks, he said his biggest challenge was getting “talent” in the supply chain organization. He further clarified this comment and made a distinction between “talent” and “people” by suggesting that getting people to fill roles is easy, but getting talented people is quite difficult. When questioned about what types of skills he was looking for from talented people, the executive identified three key areas. First, he wanted people who could effectively collaborate and communicate with other supply chain members. Second, he wanted people that have a sense of urgency when responding to issues that affect logistics service quality. Third, he wanted people that can think beyond functional siloes. As these comments demonstrate, executives are realizing that the most challenging aspects of supply chain management (SCM) come from people issues that require managers to have soft skills.
Although the previous thoughts came from a single executive in one company, they are hardly isolated. Recent research suggests that people issues are emerging as critical supply chain challenges and managers need to develop soft skills in order to survive and thrive in supply chain roles. The transportation industry exemplifies these issues as many trucking companies continue to struggle with soft issues like driver shortages, turnover, and retention (Kemp et al., 2013). Likewise, the MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics suggests that the supply chain industry is facing a severe shortage of talent and that SCM involves, “much more than number crunching” as soft skills gain strategic importance (Cottrill, 2010, p. 5). Other research suggests that the most common areas identified by managers for improving supply chain performance revolve around soft issues like organizational structure, communication, and collaboration (Thomas et al., 2011). In a discipline that has traditionally put a premium on quantitative analysis, value is now shifting to include a wide array of soft skills needed to manage modern supply chains (Cottrill, 2010; Christopher, 2012). Therefore, researchers should consider shifting their focus from analytical aspects of SCM toward studies that develop a better understanding of the challenging people issues facing industry.
Supply chain excellence depends on getting talented people in key supply chain roles to effectively communicate, collaborate, and coordinate with each other (Dittmann, 2012; Slone et al., 2010). Unfortunately, many organizations have traditionally ignored the people aspects of SCM that focus on human behavior (Tokar, 2010). As a result, supply chain managers often have strong analytical abilities, but lack essential soft skills like team building or change management (Fawcett et al., 2010). Current thought leaders in the field suggest that such a skillset imbalance is problematic for several reasons. First, dynamic and unpredictable supply chain environments require managers to have both hard and soft skills (Sweeney, 2013). Second, successfully responding to the impending supply chain talent shortage will require supply chain managers to use sophisticated soft skills in order to attract, develop, and retain the best employees (Ellinger and Ellinger, 2014). Third, the traditional preference for employees with hard skills has led to a critical shortage of soft skills in many supply chain organizations (Cottrill, 2010). Addressing soft issues is therefore a challenge for many organizations that may require a different mindset. However, by embracing the notion that the soft stuff is the hard stuff in modern supply chains, firms may have the opportunity to effectively react to changing market conditions and differentiate themselves from competitors. Supply chain scholars are well positioned to facilitate this needed transition by developing research streams in behavioral aspects of SCM.
At its very core, SCM is relational and “supply chains are, first and foremost, about people” (Sweeney, 2013). Human interactions influence supply chain practices and the boundary spanning nature of the discipline increases the complexity associated with understanding and managing human behavior. Supply chains cross-organizational, cultural, and national boundaries. Supply chain managers have multiple interactions with numerous individuals in a variety of exchange relationships. In order to implement an optimal operational solution, supply chain managers need buy-in from dozens of people in different functional areas and different companies. Achieving this goal is quite difficult and requires a number of highly developed soft skills (i.e. communication, collaboration, creativity, negotiation, selling, leadership, strategy, and relationship management). Although extant strategic SCM research recognizes the importance of these types of soft skills in modern supply chains, additional work is needed to move beyond simple recognition. Researchers must now provide guidance on how to identify, develop, implement, and utilize soft skills in order to address the people issues that can maximize or hinder supply chain performance.
Accordingly, IJPDLM is very receptive to theoretically grounded, rigorous research that addresses the softer side of SCM and recognizes the critical importance of people issues. Within this broad domain, there are numerous opportunities to make meaningful contributions to the body of knowledge within strategic SCM and logistics thought. Recent examples of research published in IJPDLM that addresses behavioral issues in SCM include studies by Thornton et al. (2013) that employs exploratory qualitative methods to identify counterproductive employee behaviors that put supply chain relationships at risk, Cantor et al. (2013) that uses survey methodology to demonstrate that environmental practices are affected by organizational support and managerial commitment, Fugate et al. (2012) that employs an experimental design to test the effects of managerial coping behaviors on relational norms and Jin et al. (2013) that uses a multi-method approach to better understand how some firms are managing and enabling supply chain integration. As these studies demonstrate, IJPDLM welcomes a diversity of topics and methodological approaches to research that addresses people aspects of SCM.
Articles in this issue
The lead article in this issue entitled, “Human resource management issues in supply chain management research: a systematic literature review from 1998 to 2014,” authored by Hohenstein, Feisel, and Hartmann epitomizes the type of research needed to stimulate research on the people aspects of SCM. The paper synthesizes 108 HRM/SCM articles from the past 15 years. The comprehensive systematic literature review identifies current research streams as well as HRM/SCM areas that need additional research. As firms struggle with a lack of supply chain talent, this research contributes toward a better understanding of essential human resource activities like recruiting, developing, and retaining valuable employees. Accordingly, this paper should prove to be a valuable resource for researchers with interests in the intersection of HRM and SCM.
The second article entitled, “Implementing sustainability on a corporate and a functional level: key contingencies that influence the required coordination,” authored by Schneider, Wallenburg, and Fabel explores factors that facilitate the implementation of sustainability initiatives. Corporate- and functional-level coordination mechanisms are identified as enablers of sustainability implementation and characteristics of organic and mechanistic coordination mechanisms are also described. By identifying success factors, this study complements existing research on barriers to sustainability implementation and identifies additional needs in this growing area of research. In particular, this study builds on Knemeyer and Winter's (2013) article that recently won the best paper award for IJPDLM, Vol. 43.
The third article entitled, “Effective sourcing strategies for perishable product supply chains,” authored by Rijpkema, Rossi, and van der Vorst addresses concerns with perishable product supply chains with a hybrid discrete event chain simulation model. Order policy implications are evaluated in terms of effects on product quality and product waste. Trade-offs between applicable costs in transportation, inventory, shortages, and waste are identified in order to suggest that sourcing strategies may need to be modified in international perishable supply chain contexts. As grocery chains continue to import many types of produce, sourcing managers, and supply management researchers can benefit from the order policy insights developed in this study.
The final article entitled, “Using a multiple-informant approach in SCM research,” authored by Kaufmann and Saw utilizes a systematic literature review to assess the current state of survey research in the discipline. The lack of multiple informant studies is identified as an area of need and recommendations on how to conduct such research are provided. The authors also discuss the merits of using multiple informants to enhance understanding and develop unique theoretical insights. This paper serves as an excellent resource for survey-based researchers as they consider multiple-informant approaches.
Cantor, D., Morrow, P., McElroy, J. and Montabon, F. (2013), “The role of individual and organizational factors in promoting firm environmental practices”, International Journal of Physical Distribution and Logistics Management, Vol. 43 Nos 5/6, pp. 407-427
Christopher, M. (2012), “Managing supply chain complexity: identifying requisite skills”, Supply Chain Forum: An International Journal, Vol. 13 No. 2, pp. 4-9
Cottrill, K. (2010), Are you Prepared for the Supply Chain Talent Crisis? MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics, Cambridge, MA, pp. 1-11, available at: www.Distributiongroup.com/articles/0211mit
Dittmann, J.P. (2012), Supply Chain Transformation: Building and Executing an Integrated Supply Chain Strategy, McGraw-Hill, New York, NY
Ellinger, A.E. and Ellinger, A.D. (2014), “Leveraging human resource development expertise to improve supply chain managers’ skills and competencies”, European Journal of Training and Development, Vol. 38 Nos 1/2, pp. 118-135
Fawcett, S.E., Andraski, J.C., Fawcett, A.M. and Magnan, G.M. (2010), “The indispensable supply chain leader”, Supply Chain Management Review, Vol. 14 No. 5, pp. 22-29
Fugate, B., Thomas, R. and Golicic, S. (2012), “The impact of coping with time pressure on boundary spanner collaborative behaviors”, International Journal of Physical Distribution and Logistics Management, Vol. 42 No. 7, pp. 697-715
Jin, Y., Fawcett, A. and Fawcett, S. (2013), “Awareness is not enough: commitment and performance implications of supply chain integration”, International Journal of Physical Distribution and Logistics Management, Vol. 43 No. 3, pp. 205-230
Kemp, E., Kopp, S. and Kemp, E.C. (2013), “Take this job and shove it: examining the influence of role stressors and emotional exhaustion on organizational commitment and identification in professional truck drivers”, Journal of Business Logistics, Vol. 34 No. 1, pp. 33-45
Knemeyer, A.M. and Winter, M. (2013), “Exploring the integration of sustainability and supply chain management current state and opportunities for future inquiry”, International Journal of Physical Distribution and Logistics Management, Vol. 43 No. 1, pp. 18-38
Slone, R., Dittmann, J. and Mentzer, J.T. (2010), New Supply Chain Agenda: The 5 Steps That Drive Real Value, Harvard Business Press, Boston, MA
Sweeney, E. (2013), “The people dimension in logistics and supply chain management - its role and importance”, in Passaro, R. and Thomas, A. (Eds), Supply Chain Management: Perspectives, Issues and Cases, McGraw-Hill, Milan, pp. 73-82
Thomas, R., Defee, C., Randall, W. and Williams, B. (2011), “Assessing the managerial relevance of contemporary supply chain management research”, International Journal of Physical Distribution and Logistics Management, Vol. 41 No. 7, pp. 655-667
Thornton, L., Esper, T. and Morris, M. (2013), “Exploring the impact of supply chain counterproductive work behaviors on supply chain relationships”, International Journal of Physical Distribution and Logistics Management, Vol. 43 No. 9, pp. 786-804
Tokar, T. (2010), “Behavioral research in logistics and supply chain management”, International Journal of Logistics Management, Vol. 21 No. 1, pp. 89-103