Increasing use of technology such as predictive analytics and the Internet of Things places greater demand on supply-chain professionals to have the technical skills necessary to understand and apply a growing number of new technologies. In the rush to keep up with these technological demands, however, the industry may be leaving behind attention to the “soft” skills such as communications, leadership and teamwork which are critical to managing organizations and turning corporate strategies into reality, Yossi Sheffi, Elisha Gray II professor of engineering systems at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and director of the MIT Center for Transportation & Logistics, recently wrote in an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal. In some respects, he adds, teaching soft skills is just as urgent as ensuring that individuals are technically proficient.


“Rapid technological innovation, globalization and increasing market volatility help accelerate the pace of change in supply-chain management,” Sheffi writes. “To perform effectively in this environment, professionals need to hone their ability to communicate with people working across wide range of disciplines and a variety of geographies, but traditional education programs may not provide a sound foundation for acquiring and refining these skills.”


For example, one of the largest—and most frustrating—challenges young business leaders face is to convince workers at all levels, including those in senior roles, to buy into a strategy or follow practices that may be different from what they have been using, Sheffi notes. This is particularly true for professionals early in their careers who may be adept engineers but aren’t naturally gifted communicators. Moreover, the education and training programs which launch them into the work world often are dominated by problem solving and analysis, where answers are defined as clearly right or wrong and lack the ambiguity encountered every day in the real world, he continues.


For example, technically-minded people often use logic to make an argument. For many people, however, pure logic won’t convince them to change their minds, so educators need to teach students how to craft a message that is both persuasive and motivational, Sheffi believes. This is particularly true when “ingrained practices may be challenged, such as convincing managers in a plant that they need to use the planning software the ‘know-it-alls’ at headquarters have purchased,” he continues.


The ability to pitch new ideas and practices to skeptical audiences is an increasingly important part of a manager’s tool kit, especially as the advance of automation raises economic uncertainty in work environments, Sheffi writes. To teach this mix of skills, it may be necessary to redesign supply-chain education programs.


I was interested to read that Sheffi says MT is experimenting with a blended approach combining online and residential study that may be one model for approaching the need for soft skills. The focus of the online segment is on analytical skills where a “correct” answer always exists, while the focus of the one-semester residential segment is on “action learning” and softer skills using the Socratic method, he explains. This requires class interaction, teamwork and communications skills which are difficult to learn in an online environment.


I was also interested to recently see an info-diagram in which Guthrie-Jensen, a management training and consultancy firm, compiled a list of key skills to be needed in 2020. The firm predicts that people with good judgment and decision-making skills will be in high demand because they are able to condense vast amounts of data, with the help of data analytics, into insightful interpretations and make measured decisions. People with the ability to skillfully negotiate with businesses and individuals to create a win-win situation will also be in demand, as will people with considerable cognitive flexibility so they can switch between different personas to accommodate the challenge at hand. Other skills sure to be in demand are critical thinking, people management, complex problem solving and creativity, the firm forecasts.


What are your thoughts on teaching, and promoting, soft skills? Do you agree there will be high demand for people with these skills in 10 years or so?