Interview with Dr. John T. Mentzer: Teaching Supply Chain

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?

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.

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