Mentzer: I just had a supply chain management book published last year (Fundamentals of Supply Chain Management: Twelve Drivers of Competitive Advantage, SAGE Publications), and it's got 12 principles that I think are strategically critical. To some degree those principles have changed over the years, but to some degree they haven't. For example, I talk about integrating business functions and about understanding that some customers are more important than others. And a lot of what supply chain management's about is collaboration — collaboration is a management process, it's not a technology system. The technology can augment collaboration, but it doesn't create the willingness for the two of us to collaborate. But I also talk in the book about substituting information for assets, and I make the point that 30 years ago information was more expensive than a warehouse, whereas today the technology has changed so that information is less expensive. So yes, to some extent we've gotten more sophisticated because we've got better tools in front of us.
S&DCE: Do you find that the students coming into your program are generally well-equipped with the technology skills they need?
Mentzer: They're much more technically capable than they've ever been. Again, we teach a tools class, and we presume when they come to that class that they already know how to use a word-processing package like Word. We do personal skills development, making sure they know about PowerPoint as part of their presentation skills. They learn how to use Excel, because many companies do all their forecasting in Excel. And our students do a lot of work with Access so they have an integral knowledge of database management, since most companies don't know how to take all the data they've got and turn it into information they can use to make decisions.
Beyond these basics, we want to make sure they're familiar with at least one of the commercial demand planning packages, one of the commercial enterprise resource planning packages, an inventory management system, a warehouse management system and a transportation management system. They'll go to work for a company that might have some other package, but at least they know how to take what they've learned and get up to speed on a new package.
S&DCE: So part of your job is to just make them open to the idea that you can apply technology to solve some of these problems.
Mentzer: Yes, we're not teaching a particular package, but we make sure they have experience with all the different categories of software.
S&DCE: Is part of the challenge for you and your colleagues on the faculty that the technology is evolving so rapidly?
Mentzer: I kid one of my neighbors who's a history professor that he just had to develop one good lecture on the Battle of Gettysburg and he can milk that puppy for 30 years, whereas every semester I have to throw away all my notes and start over again. And it's not just because of the technology. Supply chain management is changing, too. For example, the changes in the transportation infrastructure in this country over the last five years are not just a logistics issue; they affect the relationships between suppliers and customers and their transportation providers, and that's supply chain management. Anybody who is teaching supply chain management that thinks they're going to be able to walk into class with their yellow-edged notes that they've been using for 20 years is fooling themselves. The landscape of supply chain management is changing at a rapid pace and, if anything, the change in technology is faster.
S&DCE: Do you find that students want to rely too much on the technology, figuring that the software's going to solve the problem for them as opposed to the hard work of learning the principles behind the technology
Mentzer: I always tell my MBA students that if they want to be successful, they've got to be timely and timeless. "Timely" means you've got to always know the latest technology that's going to give you a competitive advantage. But don't forget that the technology is only there to make it easier for you to apply the basic principles of supply chain management. You've got to understand what your customers value and deliver it to them, and you've got to do it in such a way that your supply chain partners' customers and suppliers get value as well, or they're not going to be your partners. You've got to manage the demand as it flows up the supply chain, you've got to manage inventory as it flows down the supply chain. You've got to manage the transportation function as well as the warehousing function to store the goods when they're not moving. Those are basic supply chain management principles that existed for a long time before I started teaching, and the technology just supports those principles. One of the bumper sticker terms I use with my students is, "Systems are templates that you lay over the top of processes," and what I'm saying is, make sure you understand the principles that drive the processes, get your processes right and then worry about the technology.