With technology playing an increasingly important role in the supply and demand chain, supply chain executives increasingly are participating with their colleagues in cross-functional teams to select technologies to enable their companies' processes. These executives must have not only a solid business background and knowledge of supply chain management principles but also an understanding of the capabilities and limitations of technology, how technology can enable a process, how processes must be adapted to accommodate the new technologies, and the complexities of implementing the new technologies in their organizations.
To gain an understanding of how the business programs at U.S. universities are teaching students about the use of technology for the supply chain, Supply & Demand Chain Executive spoke with Dr. John T. (Tom) Mentzer, the Harry J. and Vivienne R. Bruce Chair of Excellence in Business in the Department of Marketing and Logistics at the University of Tennessee. Mentzer, the author of more than 180 papers and articles, as well as seven books, has focused his research on the contribution of marketing and logistics to customer satisfaction and strategic advantage in supply chains; the application of computer decision models to marketing, logistics and forecasting; and the management of the sales forecasting function. He is a past president of the Council of Logistics Management and the Academy of Marketing Science, and he previously worked for General Motors Corp.
We began by asking Mentzer about how the teaching of supply chain technology has evolved over the years.
Mentzer: I've been teaching either logistics or supply chain management courses for almost 30 years, and I have seen a huge change in the technology in that time. Back in the 1970s I would talk about the mainframe technology that the students were going to run into in the business world. In the 1980s and the 1990s we covered some mainframe and PC applications. Then, back in the late 1990s, we developed what we called our "tools course" for the MBAs, where they learned the quantitative tools that we thought they would need.
Today all our students are required to have personal computers, and in a lot of ways they're more computer literate that I'm ever going to be. So now there is still going to be a tools course, but we have challenged the faculty to involve technology in all the courses. We've still got a course that teaches them software like Access and Excel and how to use the different types of commercial software that we have access to, but we try to build technology into the other classes as well.
S&DCE: Is that a function of the technology evolving, so people just need to be aware of what the new technologies are? Or is there something about the way that technology is wrapped into supply chain management these days that has changed as well?
Mentzer: The technology has definitely changed, but the sophistication of the people using it has changed, too. When I started teaching back in the late 1970s, one of the things I talked about was that the students were going to be more "quantitatively mature" than the people they were going to be working for, so this has been going on my entire career. Just think: 15 years ago, you wouldn't have had an e-mail account or a fax machine.
S&DCE: Have you found that supply chain management itself has become more sophisticated, more reliant on the technology, or are the principals that you're teaching essentially the same as those you were teaching 30 years ago, there's just more of a technology aspect to it?