Supply chain management is shifting from transactional and tactical work to digital operations. To succeed in alignment with business goals, it needs leaders and employees who have hard and soft skills.

For the last decade, the prediction was that supply chains would embrace new technologies to become more efficient, better manage business environment complexity, and better meet the needs of internal clients. In reality, technologies are actually producing two major effects. One is the increasing automation of administrative and office work, and the second is the increasing use of digital technologies, such as artificial intelligence, the internet of things, and predictive analytics to manage the supply chain. Digital organizations require different employee skills and competencies, challenging supply chain functions to develop the soft and hard skills of employees, and find and hire talent with the right skills. The supply chain of the future will look very different due to advanced technologies, and organizations need to develop their workforce now to remain competitive, agile, flexible, and ready to manage future disruptions.

The skills that supply management demands in the transformed business model are quite different from those skills needed in the past. Talent must be able to perform duties such as interpreting algorithmic data, leveraging networks to meet customer expectations for fulfilling orders and delivering on corporate goals in areas such as sustainability, to name but a few. Accenture predicts more companies will restructure their supply chains to move the production of goods and materials close to the point of demand. Supply chains are becoming more decentralized networks that use on-demand production. New technologies can minimize the impact of distance on fulfillment, such as route-optimization algorithms, cloud-based quantum computing to figure out the fastest delivery routes and enable the micro-fulfillment centers to reduce costs, inventory, and waste. One of the effects of these tech-driven changes is that products and services will need redesigning to better fit the supply chain networks.

This picture of the future supply chain and its needs makes it clear that it is definitely not ‘business as usual’. The greatest challenge is that there is a need for people who have digital and analytics skills, soft skills, and also business acumen. For example, a consumer goods company implementing Supply Chain 4.0 hired data scientists to help with setting up a data-driven supply-chain strategy, identify gaps and determine strengths. The problem was that the data scientists did not fully understand supply-chain management, so they were not able to develop solutions that involved planning, sales, and operations as well as the supply chain function. The talent pool lacked the necessary skills to transform the supply chain function into digital projects that met business requirements.

Caroline Chumakov, principal analyst at Gartner Supply Chain Practice works on Gartner’s Supply Chain Enablers team. She discussed the need to construct a supply chain workforce that has agility and technology as the center of work and roles, and she made recommendations about work and work roles and skills. Chumakov points to the fact that supply chain employees need digital dexterity which is the “beliefs, mindsets, and behaviors that help employees deliver faster and more valuable outcomes from digital initiatives.” The competencies needed to achieve digital dexterity are business acumen, adaptability to manage obstacles with a positive attitude, collaborative skills for working on diverse teams and effectively communicating with a variety of people and businesses, systems thinking, and the ability to practice empathy for stakeholders.

Notice how many of the competencies are soft skills – ones that have not been the focus in supply chain functions before they faced transforming to digital operations. Chumakov makes it clear that soft skills need to be combined with hard data literacy skills - it is not a matter of “either-or”. She also talks about the soft skills supply chain managers need. They should be skilled at providing feedback to employees, able to provide encouragement and give employees autonomy, know employee needs and build connections to meet those needs, and provide continuous coaching. The suggested learning model for developing digital dexterity, data literacy, and the necessary management style is 70% experiential learning, 20% relationship-based learning, and 10% formal training.

Some of the required leadership and professional competencies are strategic thinking and problem-solving. Cisco Senior Vice President Angel Mendez believes the evolving supply chain profession is “at the core of bringing new capabilities to market quickly and reacting to competitive pressure and market dynamics.” He admits it is a massive shift for supply chain executives to become CEO advisors. The type of skills leaders need include the ability to collaborate with value chain partners, drive and support diversity and inclusion, persuade and effectively communicate, and lead and develop others. Once again, it is mostly soft skills needing development for the high-tech supply chain organizations.

How do organizations meet these skills requirements? Initiating training and development opportunities for current leaders and employees is essential. Enhancing the soft skills within the context of the job and workplace is one of the most effective ways to develop competencies. That is why Chumakov’s model is 70% experiential learning. Hiring new talent requires determining the hard (functional) and soft (relationship) skills needed for continued movement towards digital supply chain management. Soft skills include problem-solving, communication skills, planning, collaborative skills, teamwork skills, negotiation skills, and any other an organization needs for success. These skills are then added to the talent management process for attracting job candidates and hiring, such as job postings, application reviews, and interviewing processes.

People skills are as important as technical skills in the supply chain of the future. Transforming to a digital supply chain operation should not occur in a vacuum - it needs a transformation of leader and employee skills at the same time. This requires thoughtful analysis of current and potential skills gaps, and also skills development needs. Organizations that develop the right technical and people strengths are in the best position to achieve business goals.