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Supply Chain Executive Education in the Post-COVID World

The post-COVID education landscape doesn’t look much like its predecessor. From grade-school children being taught by their parents to high schoolers learning 100% virtually to questions about when or if the nation’s colleges will reopen for business, the only certainty is uncertainty.

The supply chain executive education picture is just as hazy, but providers in this adult education sector are already getting creative about how they deliver education, engage students and replicate the in-person experience. And while getting a group of executives—some of whom may be direct competitors—to speak openly about their strategies in a Zoom meeting isn’t easy—there are other ways to emulate the “live” networking experience.

Adding accelerant to the virtual fire

Let’s face it: The executive education space was already immersed in virtual learning long before COVID-19 surfaced and temporarily removed the “in-person” learning option. For years, SCMR has been covering this steady advancement of online learning in a space where companies need efficient, convenient and cost-effective ways to get their new and veteran supply chain executives up to speed.

For most organizations, this meant sending students to attend classes, taking online courses or partaking in a hybrid of the two. COVID poured accelerant on the virtual education movement and literally overnight pushed companies, universities and associations to reimagine the way they deliver and receive executive education.

“Obviously, executive education is shifting toward more of an online experience right now,” says James B. Rice, Jr., deputy director for MIT’s Center for Transportation and Logistics, “but there are companies that have put everything on ice and said: ‘Look, there’s no way we can do online learning.” Some of that reluctance is rooted in the fact that executive education is “largely dependent upon engaging people in very interactive discussions,” explains Rice.

In one example, a company that had signed up for an S&OP executive education course, and that was already experiencing delays with the program due to illness, decided to forge ahead with a virtual course instead. “There’s no consistent response yet,” says Rice, who sees options like one-hour webinars playing a new role in executive education, particularly as providers and companies try to figure out the best path forward.

“We’re seeing a lot more ‘free’ webinars that, over time, may shift to being [paid] when developed by the best [education] providers,” says Rice, who points to a recent Harvard Business School series of webinars and online conferences oriented toward teaching people how to provide online instruction and conduct case discussions online. “HBS really brought out the best folks they had for that series, which was super.”

See you in September

Like Rice, Steve Tracey sees a mixed bag when it comes to demand for supply chain executive education. As executive director of Penn State’s Executive Programs & the Center for Supply Chain Research, Tracey says some companies have removed executive education from their calendars for the remainder of 2020, while others tabled it for a few months during the global pandemic. He says the current situation is beginning to sound a lot like the golden oldie tune, “See you in September.”

“’Come back and see us in September,’ is a popular response right now,” says Tracey, who admits that traditional executive education was made difficult when travel restrictions took hold, but cautions companies against taking a tactical approach to the current situation. To help fill the gap while the world continues to normalize, Penn State offers for-credit synchronous classes delivered live, complete with faculty members who can “talk” to students using conferencing platforms like Zoom or BlueJeans.

Tracey says Penn State moved its existing open enrollment/Supply Chain Academy content—which was previously delivered in a hybrid format—over to live synchronous delivery. “We started that a few weeks ago and we’re scheduled out through early-August,” he says. It also set up a new Supply Chain Accelerator hybrid model that combines synchronous and asynchronous online executive education based on six different supply chain learning paths. Tracey says demand for the latter has been high. “On our first day of announcing it,” he says, “we blew right past our
budget for Google and LinkedIn advertising.”

Making valuable connections

Reflecting on pre-COVID executive education delivery methods, Lian Qi, associate professional and department chair at Rutgers Business School, says most of it was conducted in person because it provided the best opportunity for students to socialize and create bonds with one another. With social distancing, travel restrictions and limits on the size of gatherings affecting this traditional approach, Qi says schools like Rutgers are mixing things up and finding new ways to engage with students in the post-COVID world.

“We want to mix up the format while still providing some in-person events,” says Qi. “We moved lectures online and are using platforms like Coursera to deliver those lectures, and then Zoom or WebEx to hold classes in real-time.” He says these online options are good for new graduates who lack work experience, and who need training in specific areas, but says they fail to fulfill one vital part of executive education: in-person networking.

“High-level executives need an environment where they can connect with one another,” says Qi, who sees topics like resilience, risk management and how to re-establish global supply chains as particularly relevant right now. Online coursework, webinars and other education can be put in place to address these modern challenges, but executives also get a lot out of networking, collaborating and bouncing ideas off one another. For example, Qi says the case study format can be done online, but notes that it works better in person, where teams of professionals can discuss the case studies, challenges and outcomes. Those conversations often extend out to dinners, cocktail hours and other social settings, where true bonds form between executives. “Online, they just can’t talk as freely and openly as they would in person,” says Qi, “and that can take away from the experience.”

Rice says the crop of webinars that sprang up in response to the shutdowns and restrictions is probably here to stay on some level, though he predicts fewer of them as classrooms begin to reopen and as in-person education resumes.

“Providers of executive education will continue to offer webinars because, in some ways, we’ve now figured out that we can teach people remotely,” Rice concludes, noting that MIT has always taught roughly 50% of its graduate degree programs online.

“We already knew that you can teach a lot of subject matter remotely and without having people together in the same space,” Rice says, “but we also believe in the importance of being together ‘live’ for more qualitative experiences that involve critical thinking, real-time decision-making and collaboration.”

Key topics to cover

Specializing in educational supply chain content that encompasses entry-level coursework all the way up to advanced executive education, industry associations are also taking a new look at how they develop and deliver that content in the post-COVID world. At the Institute of Supply Management (ISM), CEO Tom Derry says the shift to virtual learning is now in full swing. “It was already happening,” he says, “but going forward we’ll see even more of it.”

What Derry doesn’t see coming is the replacement of face-to-face education with online options. “I don’t see classroom learning disappearing; there’s always going to be a need for executives to have an opportunity to listen to speakers in person, evaluate and talk to those speakers and probe specific topics with them,” says Derry. “There still has to be a critical exchange—a Socratic method of questions and answers—at the executive level, and there’s only one way that can happen: face-to-face.”

At ASCM, CEO Abe Eshkenazi says COVID accelerated the need for competency-based knowledge as opposed to theoretical, four-year degrees and “recognition of the university that you attended.” With pre-COVID supply chain graduate placement rates at 90% and starting salaries for these professionals second only to engineers, according to ASCM’s most recent salary survey, he sees executive education continuing to help fill the gaps not covered by traditional college programs.

“Employers are still telling us that graduates lack real-work experience,” says Eshkenazi, “and that they’re not in touch with how manufacturing and/or the supply chain industry currently looks in terms of robotics, artificial intelligence and blockchain.”

As companies adapt to the post-COVID business environment, Rick Blasgen, president and CEO at CSCMP, expects to see a bigger focus on the fundamentals of modern-day supply chain management theory and practice. With supply chain failures making headlines during some of the most critical points of the global pandemic, companies are trying not to repeat those mistakes and to instead learn from those hard-earned lessons.

“Topics like manufacturing, transportation, inventory management and forecasting all came up a lot during the pandemic,” says Blasgen. “We’ve been educating ourselves and implementing best practices on those issues for decades, and suddenly it was all happening right in front of us.”

Confident, capable individuals

Looking ahead, Eshkenazi expects the trend toward using more online learning to continue, but he also sees a place for hybrid options and some in-person learning, though it may take time for the latter to reemerge. “If you’re running a ‘face-to-face organization’ and holding onto that, you probably need to reevaluate your strategy at that point,” says Eshkenazi, who also expects demand for experienced supply chain executives to increase over the coming months.

“Right now, organizations are recognizing the value of supply chain like they never have in the past,” he says. “More importantly, they understand the value of having the competency and capabilities to not only develop strategies, but also to implement those strategies in a very resilient way that can withstand the spikes and disruptions that we’re facing right now. That requires confident, capable individuals.”

Learn about the various offerings of Supply Chain Management certifications by professional organizations and universities here.

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