This was the year that supply chain and logistics went from being a conversation among industry professionals and insiders, to a topic of discussion at the dinner table. The pandemic made it very clear how imperative supply chain resilience is to the success and survival of our economy and everyday way of living.

While on one hand, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a great disruptor of supply chains, it is also serving as a catalyst for change and innovation. And this transformation brings with it many questions about the future of the industry. As an industry that is still in many ways bound by tradition and conventional ways of thinking, it’s important to embrace more innovation and fresh perspective, particularly from the incoming generation of supply chain professionals who will someday be the industry’s leaders.

Across the Generation Gap

Looking at the future of supply chain through a generational lens provides an interesting perspective into where supply chain management is headed. How do we get the next generation excited about being a part of the industry? How do we capture the critical knowledge and experience that is leaving the industry as the older generation begins to retire? These are important questions to examine and address in order to forge a more resilient supply chain.

A recent study commissioned by BluJay and conducted by Adelante SCM, in partnership with the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals (CSCMP), found that 75% of the respondents – supply chain and logistics professionals – expect to make moderate-to-extreme changes in how they design and operate their supply chains to become more resilient. Looking at this number on a generational level, a greater percentage of Millennials/Gen Z respondents (38%) expect to make Many or Extreme changes compared with Generation X (34%) and Silent/Boomer respondents (31%).

Perhaps it’s that Millennials/Gen Z supply chain professionals view this moment as their opening. The pandemic, in other words, is their shot to transform and prepare supply chains for a better tomorrow.

What’s evident from the research is that there are clearly differences in perspectives and priorities between Silent, Boomer, Gen X, Millennials, and Gen Z generations. Each group has stereotypes about the others, which often hinders effective communication and collaboration between them. The truth, however, is that each group can learn a lot from each other.

For instance, 55% of Silent/Boomer respondents said they Agree or Strongly Agree that customer experience will become the number-one brand differentiator. Gen X and Millennial/Gen Z respondents, however, had higher percentages (64% and 65%), respectively.

The results suggest that the younger the generation, the stronger the belief that competing on customer experience will overtake price and product as the number one brand differentiator. Where once cutting cost was how to get a leg up on the competition, it’s now considered table stakes and the conversation has shifted to how do you create a better, more unique brand experience and how do you improve customer satisfaction to edge out your competitors. Millennials and Generation Z respondents most recognize the importance of business intelligence, analytics, and machine learning in delivering an enhanced customer experience, and therefore put greater emphasis on investing in these areas to help move their organizations forward.

The study also found that Silent/Boomer respondents view external trading partners as being a much bigger barrier to supply chain and logistics innovation than internal functional groups, while Gen X and Millennials/Gen Z respondents believe just the opposite. Also, the younger the generation, the more they view siloed systems and/or processes as a top barrier to innovation. While opposing viewpoints, these two generational perspectives actually point to a common need which is to break down silos – both internally and externally. This is a process that needs to be intentional and collaborative – it won’t just happen on its own. This is where the institutional knowledge from the older generation can be helpful in navigating already existing external and internal channels to make progress.

Improving Communication and Collaboration Across Generations

One strategy to get past the stereotypes and create a more unified team is to emphasize shared goals. As this HBR article points out, “By doing so, both older and younger people can see themselves as part of the same team working toward the same outcome. Indeed, focusing on commonalities or a common direction can reduce perceptions of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ and can create or reinforce a sense of ‘we’.”

What’s more, a trend that COVID has brought to light is the desire from supply chain professionals in having flexible work options and being able to work remotely. The shift to remote work across the industry could offer some resolution to the traditional way of doing things and thinking about how to bring everyone together to collaborate more while being more flexible.

At the end of the day resilience is born out of collaboration and relationships, so it’s imperative that businesses foster an open environment that encourages and promotes a healthy dialogue and the flow of information among team members – of all ages – to fortify their supply chains now and in the future.

Patrick Maley is CMO, BluJay Solutions.

This article originally appeared in the March/April, 2021 issue of PARCEL.