The role of soft skills in SCM

posted by Dr Ozlem Bak, Christine Jordan, James Midgley
24 May 2019

With supply chains expanding in scope and scale globally, the academic and professional literature underlines the increasing role and importance of soft skills.

Traditionally, the supply chain literature has been geared towards hard skills including functional and technical skill sets with limited discussion of soft skills. Therefore, the purpose of our study was to assess and explore the demand for soft skills in the supply chain management (SCM) arena.

Our study has utilised a mixed methods approach in two phases, with the first stage including a questionnaire distributed to 120 supply chain employees in the UK, followed by six interviews with supply chain experts in the UK.

The supply chain skills indicated the need for a balance of both hard skills (functional) as well as soft skills (relational) in order to manage global supply chains.

In the last 20 years there has been a growing emphasis towards ‘softer’ aspects of supply chain skills, whereby, soft skills have been defined as abilities and traits that pertain to personality, attitude, and behaviour rather than to formal or technical knowledge.

However, the tendency in the supply chain research agenda was towards hard skills, as these were regarded more attributable to employers’ needs. Hard skills were interlinked with functional and management skills, such as inventory management, transport management and logistics service management.

But a recent study conducted by Capgemini Consulting (2015) supported the fact that future supply chain skills will need to include soft skills to supplement hard skills, and another survey found that 72% of CEO’s felt that soft skills are more important for their business in the current environment (Economist, 2016).

With the increasing demand for soft skills, new skills sets have been recognised, such as flexibility and negotiation, which have not necessarily been associated with supply chain and logistics in the past. Our study results suggest that soft skills, especially behavioural skills such as communication, planning, initiative and negotiation were seen to be more important.

Our findings indicated that the changing supply chain scope encourages the requisition and development of different supply chain soft skills with varied levels of emphasis in relation to 15 soft skills identified in the literature: Problem solving (PRO); Planning skills (PLN); Flexibility (FLX); Organisational skills (OSM); Communication skills (COM);  Time management (TIM); Motivation and enthusiasm (MAE); Stress management (SSM); Initiative (INI); People management (PEM); Collaborative learning (COL); Teamwork (TEW); Leadership skills (LES); Management of complexity and change (MCC); Negotiation (NEG).

Supply chains are increasingly people-driven and are highly dependent on specific skills, and the strength of these skills, for their overall success.

The distribution of soft skills in the supply chain


Our study indicated several findings:

  • The changing competitive global environment indicated the increasing need for supply chain soft skills with emphasis placed on behavioural, decision making and management skills as critical in soft skill discussions in the UK.
  • Specifically, behavioural skills such as communication, planning, initiative and negotiation were seen to be more important when compared to decision-making, negotiation and management skills.
  • The changing supply chain scope encourages the requisition and development of different supply chain soft skills with varied levels of emphasis in relation to 15 soft skills identified in the literature.

Specific soft skills seem to be more critical to certain supply chain employers compared to others (e.g. behavioural and people management skills), which may be a result of factors such as the nature of those organisations, the sector they operate in, the relative size and structure, and their competitive environment. Although many of these soft skills derive from innate ability, the organisation and workplace culture plays a considerable role and its impact upon soft skills is recognised as of increasing importance.

Based on our findings, organisations, educators and employers should be encouraged to consider ways in which soft skills can be explored, developed and enhanced, within the context of their working environments, and assign relevant training initiatives. Soft skills training initiatives may be most effective when driven by the joint effort of both educators and employers, and this could offer a valuable future strand of competition.

☛ Dr Ozlem Bak, Brunel Business School; Christine Jordan, University of Huddersfield; and James Midgley, Cargo-Partners

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