Supply chain managers respond to disruptions on a
daily basis. These disruptions can come at businesses
from many different directions. Economic trends, technological breakthroughs, human resource issues, environmental concerns, natural disasters—you name it.
At the supply chain level, every member of the network multiplies these complexities. In addition, remember that most supply chains have cross-border relationships that produce a myriad of other dynamic concerns. It can be a big mess of cascading liabilities and certainly can cause some sleepless nights.
I experienced a serious disruption in 2018. I have spent time teaching import/export management to companies and at 25 international universities over 15 years. My materials, lecture style, and top-of-mind examples are well practiced. I arrive at an international location with all my tools ready to go from my last class. Because of my long-term association with the field, it is a rather easy prep each time—or was.
Something happened. President Trump decided to expose what I have been ranting about in class for years—international trade is not free trade if you are the US. Unfortunately, there was not time to enjoy any validation in his comments, as the president included action with his tweets, making serious adjustments to US trade policy and making a good portion of my course obsolete.
But that’s a good thing—and so is disruption.
Disruption is constantly discussed in a pejorative way. We are all looking for ways to avoid it, despite disruption being inevitable to all businesses. We seem to forget that disruption is the catalyst that drives change, the tipping point. We all can relate to the impact of disruption in our lives. Losing a job, moving across country, having a health scare, etc., all put us in a critical decision setting that changes how we live, act, and flourish.
There is a reason why octogenarians say, “I wouldn’t change the way I went through life.” It is because who they are is the sum of the decisions they made when dealing with all those disruptions. Moreover, don’t forget that the American South would not be where it is today without our greatest disruption. The Civil War was a devastating event that no country should have to endure, but beyond the bloodshed, that critical incident influenced the development of new infrastructure, influenced how we view civil rights, updated our health care system, and built small cities (Atlanta, Nashville) into future economic powerhouses. Even a disruption that terrible can create major benefits to citizens and customers.
Austrian economists embrace disruption, as it “destroys” the current way we do things, allowing for the development of innovative process and products. Disruption encourages adjustment, adaptability, flexibility, agility, and improvisation. It requires educators to change the way we teach. The growth of big data business analytics has been an amazing academic disruption over the last several years and is having a big impact on forecasting and knowledge management.
However, is anyone working to teach companies how to forget the things they do poorly? The very Alabama phrase “If it ain’t broke—don’t fix it” just does not work in this economy. You have to break it—study it—and come up with continually improving approaches or watch the competition sail past. That “breaking” is pure disruption.
Without disruption, your organization falls behind. Without disruption, managers wouldn’t be needed. Even if they were needed, the pay wouldn’t be impressive. Our ability to predict and manage disruptions is why we are hired and retained. In fact, in many instances we are challenged to create disruptions through innovation. Not only is necessity the mother of invention, but also invention mothers necessary disruption.
Knowing this, we are doing all we can in the Harbert College of Business to introduce real-world projects into our courses that force students into ambiguous situations that require dealing with disruption. This approach has been a huge help to our early career students.
As for me, I still occasionally teach those import/export classes, but anytime a fact or figure appears on my PowerPoint slides I feel like I need to go read the president’s newest tweets.
Harbert Eminent Scholar
Supply Chain Management