In today’s fast-paced economy, it seems like business best practices change more frequently than they have in eras past. While the growing global marketplace has made it possible for companies to trade, interact, and conduct business on a larger scale, it has also made things a lot more complicated from a management point of view. A supply chain manager trained only to handle in-house or state-side functionalities may now find herself immersed in a sea of international invoices and online tracking mechanisms. The Internet has doubtless made these processes more efficient, but it has also made them more daunting. A specifically supply chain MBA would have been seemingly ridiculous maybe 20 years ago, but today it is one of the fastest-growing programs out there.
Broadly put, the “supply chain” is the lifecycle of a particular product. It usually begins with rudimentary brainstorming and design, then extends to physical production and coordination among manufacturers, shippers, and assemblers—all of whom are increasingly dispersed throughout the world. Problems with any one aspect can trickle down to others.
“While supply chains have existed for a long time, most organizations have only paid attention to what was happening within their ‘four walls,’” Robert Handfield, director of the Supply Chain Resource Cooperative at North Carolina State, has said. “Few businesses understood, much less managed, the entire chain of activities that ultimately delivered products to the final customer. The result was disjointed and often ineffective supply chains.”
Companies are, by and large, surging to get on top of these issues. The complexity of today’s processes has made things exponentially more difficult, though, which many see as justification for a supply chain-specific education. “The ability to anticipate and address risk effectively has been severely handicapped by complexity. Now that manufacturers are outsourcing more work to suppliers across the globe and are managing second and third tier suppliers, it has become difficult to track, trace and monitor production,” Milosz Matja, a business analyst for software company Apriso, recently wrote in Forbes.
Pursuing a business degree with a supply chain focus can position a student to stay ahead of these changes. New graduates with this sort of expertise are also increasingly in demand which, in light of today’s still somewhat dreary hiring landscape, should be good news indeed to MBA students—most of whom become highly leveraged to pay for their training.
“The supply chain concentration, combined with general management training, gives students both the big-picture perspective and the detailed toolkits they will need to succeed in a world where businesses are placing higher strategic importance on their supply chain management functions,” Elizabeth Wilkinson, a 2008 graduate of Rutgers University’s Supply Chain MBA program, says on the school’s website.
According to Rutgers, one of the benefits of the program is the chance for students to study and participate in “real-world industry projects” that are as pressing as they are relevant.
The possibilities post-graduation are broad, too. Students who have spent a lot of time thinking through global supply chain issues and the technologies at their disposal for management are often in some of the best positions to help companies really modify and strengthen their in-house processes. This can lead to truly far-reaching effects for not just the company, but also society at large. Take the case of Honda Motors, for example. Supply chain experts in that company applied their expertise to a study of the Honda supply chain’s carbon footprint. Employees researched the emissions produced every step of the way, from manufacturing and packaging to shipping and ultimate use. “The company learned that an eye-opening 87 percent of its emissions are generated by customer use of its motorcycles, cars and power products, which will help inform its greenhouse gas reduction initiatives,” Forbes reported in 2012. These findings allowed the motor giant to both make its processes more efficient, and help make the world a greener place.
New technologies undoubtedly make supply chain management simpler, but harnessing them requires a certain degree of confidence and expertise. Much of this can be learned on the job, but the growing number of schools offering supply chain-focused MBA programs is evidence of this niche’s growing trend. Those who have an interest in supply-side management would be wise to look into this growing field—the time, not to mention the demand, has never been stronger.