MASTERING THE SUPPLY CHAIN: Why Experiential Learning is Crucial

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Supply chain management is a complex topic, which poses interesting challenges for learners and teachers alike. In this article, author Ed Weenk discusses the concept of experiential learning as a powerful means to prepare for successfully mastering the supply chain.

Supply chains are growing in complexity

Nowadays, most companies have extensive product or service portfolios, address a multitude of different customer segments, sell and produce in a range of countries and deal with large numbers of suppliers. Creating an overview of such a supply chain is already a challenging task, let alone managing it successfully on a daily basis; a lot of different stakeholders are involved, countless decisions need to be made and many trade-offs exist.

On top of that, developments in the world in terms of globalization, proliferation of technologies, climate change and social awareness are going faster and faster and, as a consequence, the world is becoming less and less predictable. Take challenges such as changing demographics, the rise of megacities, sustainable sources of energy, political instability and potential enabling technologies from the wider scope of Industry 4.0, and it is clear that there is a very high degree of complexity at play here.

In fact, complexity is a central word for understanding the topic of Supply Chain Management (SCM). We will need a lot of brain-power in the future to come up with clever solutions to our supply chain challenges.

Developing skills to manage complex supply chains

But how do you learn or teach ‘complexity’ in a meaningful way, preparing yourself or others to deal with it effectively? Does simply explaining the many elements of complexity do the trick?

I don’t think so.

Explaining complexity will surely help to create some basic understanding in terms of knowledge, but I believe there is something more to it: the need to develop skills.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) frequently publishes an overview of their view on “21st-century skills”, based on frequent surveys among a diversity of companies. The most recent WEF list includes the following:

  • Complex problem solving
  • Critical thinking
  • Creativity
  • People management
  • Coordinating with others
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Judgment and decision making
  • Service orientation
  • Negotiation
  • Cognitive flexibility

Not surprisingly, a number of these skills are related to complexity and how to deal with it, as well as human interaction. One of the implicit expectations is that we will need to be working more and more in teams in order to deal with the increasing complexity in the world.

So how do we effectively teach or learn these skills? This is where experiential learning enters the stage.

What is experiential learning?

In experiential learning, the focus is on a first-hand experience, which allows for reflection on what happened and why, leading to a conceptual view on the situation, potentially reinforced by existing theories and/or frameworks.

This combination is the basis for an improved view on the situation, which can be applied in the next experience, either in class or in another study environment, or directly in a real-world situation. As Kolb (2015) says: “This process is portrayed as an idealized learning cycle or spiral where the learner ‘touches all the bases’”.

Figure 0.1: The learning cycle (based on Kolb, 2015)

Figure showing the learning cycle

The link between experiential learning and 21st-century skills becomes even stronger if the experiences are based on problems or situations which the student will initially find “unstructured” or “new”, where they need to build up their own understanding of what’s going on. Some would describe this as the student getting “out of their comfort zone”. This leads to what Robinson and Aronica (2015) phrase as “Effective learning in any field is often a process of trial and error, of breakthroughs punctuated by failed attempts to find a solution”.

Experiential supply chain teaching and learning

Applied to supply chain teaching & learning, we should look for methods which fully facilitate for what Kolb indicated as the “learner touching all bases”, for example by putting case method teaching, project work or business simulation games at the heart of this learning experience. In subsequent steps such approaches serve as a vehicle for grasping experience, as well as transforming experience, complemented by conceptual frameworks, as well as active reflecting by the learner, leading into a next iteration of the activity, creating a steep learning curve based on first-hand experience.

I firmly believe that applying such methodologies in supply chain learning is crucial in preparing those brains that we will need so much to deal with future supply chain challenges and the corresponding complexity, brains that will master the supply chain.

The supply chain learner

Let’s focus for a moment on the supply chain learner. Supply chain talent is scarce, and at the same time, there are many supply chain challenges. This means that there is a wealth of opportunities for those who decide to embark on the journey of studying the topic. But how can you best prepare yourself for a future career in the supply chain, what is important from the perspective of the learner?

When you start learning about supply chain, you will probably soon find out that many of the underlying concepts and frameworks of the area are relatively straightforward and therefore simple to understand, but that there are a number of reasons why their application in practice is, in fact, not easy.

For example, when talking about outsourcing, there are frameworks which highlight the factors to be taken into consideration when a company wants to decide about whether or not to outsource a particular activity. Application of such a framework will lead to a list of arguments in favour (or against) outsourcing. Some of those arguments are quantifiable, but there are also some parts which are more qualitative in nature and this combination of quantitative and qualitative arguments brings in the (subjective) dimension of judgment. In other words, the elements of the framework are simple to understand but to make a concrete decision on the basis of applying the framework might not always be that easy and straightforward.

Secondly, even though the individual concepts might be simple to understand, it is the sheer number of concepts at play with an infinite number of interdependencies between them, that makes it a very challenging area to manage, especially from a global holistic perspective. For example, we can speak about the main considerations of inventories, or the physical aspects of warehousing, or developments in transportation, all relatively straightforward at the conceptual level, but when we have to come up with an integral distribution network solution for a certain company, then suddenly the puzzle becomes quite a lot more complex because we need to bring all of those aspects into the equation.

Add to this the very realistic dimension of incomplete information, assumptions, ambiguity, time pressure, different opinions and a world around us which is moving on continuously, and we get an even more complex picture.

Utilizing experiential learning

So how can you best learn about how to manage such a challenging environment? Surely getting to know the basic concepts and frameworks is very helpful, but probably this will not be more than a starting point. And besides, typically you will learn about such concepts and frameworks in a sequential way, sometimes even in an isolated way from different subject matter expert teachers, whereas in the real-life application it’s all the complexity at play at the same time.

As the work of Robinson and Aronica (2015) indicates: “Many students learn best when they are actively doing things and not only studying ideas in the abstract: when their curiosity is aroused, when they are asking questions, discovering new ideas, and feeling for themselves the excitement of these disciplines.”. If you’re a learner yourself, then you probably recognize this observation.

I could not agree more with Robinson and Aronica. I firmly believe that the supply chain learner, given the multiple dimensions and complexity of the topic, should actively look for experiential learning as a substantial element in their learning path. Choose a program or course that uses approaches like the case method, practical project work in teams and company projects and traineeships, supported by solid integral methodologies offering the complete cycle of experiential learning. More about this aspect of methodology later, let’s focus now on the Supply Chain teacher for a moment.

The supply chain teacher

What are the implications of supply chain complexity and experiential learning from the perspective of the Supply Chain teacher? How can they successfully apply these principles into an interesting and meaningful learning experience?

The first thing to be aware of is the role of the teacher in experiential learning. Albert Einstein supposedly used to say that rather than teaching his students, his objective was to provide them with the conditions in which they could learn.

At first glance, it might seem like wordplay, but Einstein’s remark is, in my opinion, spot-on and applicable to experiential learning: the experience of learning is not about the teacher, it is ultimately about the learner. That is also why Harvard Business School speaks about ‘participant-centred learning’ when talking for example about the case method, which they have been championing for a long time already.

In other words, a teacher going at length to visibly display great knowledge about theories and frameworks of a certain topic in ‘masterclass’ type settings is of much less importance here. More relevant becomes the dimension of exposing students to practical supply chain issues and guiding them in finding potential solutions.

Of course, this could lead to situations in which not only the learner gets drawn out of their comfort zone, but that the same might happen to the teacher in question. After all, in experiential learning, the outcome of an activity is sometimes less predictable than in the case of simply explaining the theory in class. How to deal with this? Like in the case of the Supply Chain learner, here methodology comes into the picture.

Bringing it all together: the power of good integral supply chain teaching and learning methodology

If a teacher has a good and proven methodology at their disposal, then teaching for experiential learning becomes much less cumbersome and, in fact, a lot of fun. The same goes for the learner: with a powerful methodology, the path of learning will be clearer, more fun to be part of and therefore, more beneficial.

Let’s look at the specific example of teaching and learning the many complexities of supply chain management using The Fresh Connection business simulation game. For this, an integral methodology has now been developed that consists of materials for each of the steps of the learning cycle:

  • First, there is the simulation tool itself which provides the basis for actively going through the experience;
  • Then there are 80+ exercises and reflections that help learners look back and analyze what happened during the simulation experience. Each of these exercises is centred around one of the following verbs, thus highlighting the active role that is expected from the learner:
    • Explore
    • Analyze and decide
    • Imagine
  • In addition, there are the basic relevant theories, concepts and frameworks that link to elements of the gameplay, enriching the experience by giving further explanation or background. These theories, concepts and frameworks have been clustered into three relevant dimensions of supply chain management: the business dimension, the technical dimension and the leadership dimension.

In this way, the teacher interested in taking steps towards using the principles of experiential learning for supply chain teaching will find here an integral approach for doing so, aimed at helping them lead their students to master the supply chain. The individual learner will also find here a complete and coherent path to explore and master the fundamentals as well as moving beyond them, thus preparing for the next step in the learning journey: real-life practice in a real company.

Experiential learning: crucial for supply chain teachers and learners alike

I think that applying integral methodologies for experiential learning as the one described above is crucial in preparing those brains that we will need so much to deal with future supply chain challenges and the corresponding complexity, brains that will be capable of effectively master the supply chain.

So if you’re a teacher, you should explore the possibilities of experiential learning to enrich your teaching. If you’re a learner, make sure you look for sufficient elements of experiential learning in the courses, programs, or books you’re considering to choose for your future development.

And besides, another good thing about experiential learning: it is also an excellent way of becoming even more engaged with the topic and it provides a lot of fun while learning. I wish you a very enjoyable and fruitful experiential journey towards mastering the Supply Chain.


For more information about integral experimental supply chain learning, read Mastering the Supply Chain