What are the benefits of life-long learning and continuous development?

14 December 2022

Supply chain management is increasingly a digital business, one that requires practitioners to straddle both technological advances with human communications. Digital uptake has been strong, spurred on by global disruptions, but this appetite for progress of the profession itself only deepens the importance of upskilling to keep pace.

In 2018, a report produced by Dell Technologies and authored by the Institute for the Future (IFTF) concluded that 85% of jobs that would exist in 2030 had yet to be invented. Some of those jobs may have emerged, but the crux of the research still stands – the world is changing fast and organisations need to proactively invest to ensure they have the necessary skills for the future. New generations will satisfy a portion of the new skills demand, but the majority will most likely come from retraining people already in the workforce. 

While previous generations could expect to gain qualifications in a chosen profession and then perform that role for the next 40 years, often without needing any additional training, this is no longer an option today and will become even less likely and less desirable in the years to come. Therefore, life-long learning and professional development is essential; not only for organisations to plug talent gaps but to retain employees in an ever-tightening labour market.

The pandemic has brought this issue into sharper focus, says Helen Marshall, head of learning at THRIVE Learning. “As the pace of technological change accelerates and manufacturers increasingly deploy state-of-the-art technology, a number of pre-pandemic manual jobs have ceased to exist, replaced by more rewarding, higher-impact jobs,” she says. “‘Upskilling’ and ‘reskilling’ may sound like buzzwords, but they are of vital importance to the millions of people whose jobs were profoundly altered by the pandemic-induced acceleration of digitalisation.”

Learning to learn

To fully embrace the concept of life-long learning requires a fundamental shift in attitude, says Professor Christos Tsinopoulos, associate dean for external engagement at Durham University Business School. “It focuses not only on the acquisition of specific skills but on regular reflection and building the capability to ‘learn to learn’,” he says. “It requires individuals to be responsible for their learning journey and to develop strategies that help them become more effective.”

Within a business, HR and learning and development functions need to play a larger part, to lead the way in designing programmes, supported by individual departments. “Some organisations upskill their workforce by granting study time, while others organise training in-house,” says Dr Dauda Hamzat, principal lecturer at Arden University’s School of Supply Chain and Project Management. “It is also common to see employers sponsor the education of their supply chain personnel via third-party short courses, as well as standard undergraduate and post-graduate studies.”

Bite-sized learning opportunities are just as important as formal training and qualifications, adds Chris Dolby, senior director for talent acquisition at logistics firm GXO. This also helps improve accessibility for participants, with short but regular sessions in any location, providing opportunities for people less able to commit to or thrive in formal environments.

“With the growth of the internet, learning has never been more accessible,” he says, adding that it is important to make learning fun and interesting, so colleagues want to engage. GXO operates its own learning and development platform known as GXO University, and Dolby says 109,000 users completed a total of 315,000 learning modules in 2021.

Workforces in digital the world

There are specific skills that will be required in years to come; some of which are sector-specific while others are common across most positions, such as digital capabilities. According to the Learning and Work Institute, 92% of businesses say it is important that employees have a basic level of digital skills; however, procurement software firm Ivalua’s research found that 86% of employees face significant barriers to developing digital skills in procurement.

Specialist expertise aside, those working in supply chain roles will need a broader set of skills than previously, suggests Emile Naus, partner at consulting firm BearingPoint. “It is important to have supply chain-specific knowledge, combined with industry-specific understanding,” he says. “It will be critical to have good data and analytical knowledge. Finally, it will be vital to have the soft skills to translate all of this into making change happen across an organisation. Supply chains are multi-functional, and a traditional silo approach will not be sufficient.”

Increasingly, though, experts believe a focus on softer people skills will be required as supply chain and procurement professionals take on more prominent roles. “There is one skill that beats all the others and that is communication,” says Thorsten Kräft, who is an associate director at consultancy Inverto.

“They need to enjoy working with people, to be able to process data and communicate it effectively upwards to the CPO and C-suite, as well as winning over blue-collar workers and understanding where they are coming from. There is also an important piece around how agile working is brought to life within a company and the communication skills required to develop high-performing teams.”

A culture of leadership and upskilling 

Leadership skills also need to be developed, and crucially, these should be applied to all employees, suggests Robert Ordever, European managing director at workplace culture firm O C Tanner. “The best leaders are the products of cultures that have integrated leadership development into everyday organisational life, where everyone from executives to individual contributors knows and lives common leadership principles, and where leadership development is open to and expected from all employees,” he says.

Organisations that are able to successfully embed a life-long learning culture will be best placed to adapt to changing environments. “Having an employee base with up-to-date skills on both the more technical and the softer skills needed is an obvious and immediate benefit,” points out Tsinopoulos. “However, the benefits do not stop there. A life-long learning approach would require sta and their organisation to reflect and continuously learn. This would result in a more cohesive culture and a more highly motivated workforce.”

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