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Supply Chain Management during the COVID-19 pandemic

Supply Chain Management during the COVID-19 pandemicThe COVID-19 virus has brought humanity, as we have come to know it, to its knees. Where kindness, sharing and caring once prevailed, now self-preservation reigns in shopping malls throughout the world as the “have’s” stockpile their larders with vitals at the expense of the poor, the needy, the aged and the sick. Shopping trolleys are filled to the brim not because there is a dire and urgent need to satisfy physiological needs but rather the wanton greed to plunder shopping shelves without giving any consideration for the shoppers in the queues behind them.  Imagine if the world did not have an effective and efficiently run supply chain to constantly channel food, fuel and other essentials to replace those that have been exhausted because of the “feeding frenzy” of the uncaring and those who have sufficient funds to purchase what and when they like and the transport to procure such offerings. There would be further chaos, indescribable misery, an uncontrolled mortality rate and above all a world economic recession that would surpass the 1929 financial crash!

Historically, Supply Chain Management (SCM) has been likened to a philosophy… a concept rather than an essential service. As a relatively new mindset, it incorporates thirteen logistics activities and business processes to ensure cohesion amongst supply chain members and a continued flow of products, information and money. Wars have been won and lost by the implementation and control of either effective and efficient Supply Chain Management or the lack of using it to its full potential as was experienced during the Napoleonic Wars and WW2. There is little doubt that the world post-COVID-19 virus will be decidedly different to life as we have come to know prior to this adverse scourge befalling us. Therefore SCM will not be considered merely a concept but rather a life-saving essential service that will be used for the cohesion of all supply chains so that they may work in concert with one another in order to satiate the needs and wants of people and businesses at all times, including times of crises.

Besides the challenges brought upon us by the current pandemic, what other challenges are looming in the years ahead? Some of the key issues (certainly not all) are:

  1. Technology (automation, robotics and the 4th Industrial Revolution). According to Klaus Schwab, the Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum (2017), the 4th Industrial Revolution is characterized by “… new technology fusing the physical, digital and biological worlds, thereby impacting on all disciplines”. With the ease of new entrants into the market and capturing it (it took Facebook 6 years to generate $1billion and Google 5 years), new entrants will generate more products, which will need to be warehoused, transported and distributed. This will add an immense amount of pressure on existing global and national supply chains, thereby necessitating a SCM revolution that will be able to cope with such metamorphosis;
  2. Pressure on the reduction of costs and the increased desire for quality. Herein lies the greatest paradox of all as consumers and business customers demand low prices for products and services, yet insist on increased quality. With the ever-escalating price of fuel, vehicles and running costs, supply chain members are going to have to seek ways to maintain and if possible, decrease their cost. This could be achieved by vertical integration, horizontal integration (by buying competitors to enjoy economies of scale) and the use of fuel-efficient and sustainable vehicles and even self-propelled trucks (already being used) to reduce labour and associated costs;
  3. Globalisation and the effective and efficient management of the elongated and complex supply network. Lengthy supply chains are fraught with risk and uncertainty, especially in this turbulent and uncertain world we all currently reside in. Here risk management is going to play an important role in identifying and mitigating risks (supplier risks, supply risks and interest rate risks etc.) so that global business may operate under an umbrella of relative certainty;
  4. Shorter lead time as a result of consumer demand and rapid changes in consumer behaviour. There is no doubt that we live in a world for the need of instant gratification. What we see today is what we buy today, especially as a result of consumers having access to virtually unlimited credit. We therefore buy what we want even though we cannot afford it. The rapid changes that are taking place in consumer behaviour as a result of AI’s impact on the generic consumer behaviour process (desire for products and services are created and not identified as per the process) are also fueling the need for a more agile, responsive, sustainable, customer-centric and cost-efficient supply chains. Where once agility was sufficient to satisfy needs, how much quicker must organisations produce and distribute goods so that they may arrive at the Right place, to the Right person, in the Right condition, at the Right time and at the Right price?
  5. Effective inventory and throughput management in a global context. With a world exploding with over-population and the need for finished goods and services, the question is how much inventory should an organisation carry? It is a well-known fact that carrying too much inventory incurs additional carrying costs whilst carrying an insufficient quantity increases the likelihood of retail outages and escalated order costs. With most forecasting being historically inaccurate, how can organisations prophesize future demand so that capacity can be managed to meet such demand? Some pundits see the solution to be JIT production and distribution whilst other see the answer to be further collaboration and integration, increased information sharing and joint demand forecasting amongst all players in the supply chain. Whatever the solution may be, throughput management needs to be “managed” so that the Rights that are reflected above may be realised otherwise customers will migrate to competitors that can offer quicker response times and miniscule outages; and
  6. Build ‘robustness’. A robust supply chain is one that can withstand ‘shocks’, such as the current disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. In their search for continuous improvement and reduction of costs, what the acclaimed writer Margaret Heffernan calls ‘the myth of infinite efficiency’, supply chains that have adopted Lean or JIT methodologies now find they lack robustness.  They have no ‘extra’, there is no slack that can be used to mitigate the effects of the unexpected.  This essential characteristic has been driven out by the persistent downward pressure on costs.  These businesses operate on razor-thin margins (of time, of money, and of resources generally) and their supply chains are not robust – they are very exposed to disruption.  Supply chains need to build robustness by balancing cost-efficiency with flexibility and resilience.  They need to develop stronger relationships with other chain members instead of focusing on extracting the lowest prices from them.  The future is becoming more difficult to predict and forecasting less effective. Disruptions and unforeseen events are inevitable.  Supply chains have become longer and more complex.  Unless they gain robustness, these supply chains will not be ‘fit’ enough to mitigate the risk of crippling disruptions.

The industries that are most at risk are:

  1. The transport industry as it will be faced with ensuring that the above Rs are implemented and controlled. As a result of AI, it is estimated that by 2025 thousands of motorcars and trucks will be driverless. The negatives from a trucking perspective includes job losses, less ownership and the possibility of hacking and cyber-attacks. In the summer of 2015 (the year Tesla was launched), two hackers demonstrated their ability to hack a moving car; controlling its dashboard functions, steering, brakes etc. all via the vehicle’s entertainment system (Schwab, 2017). It is believed that all modes of transport (especially road) will be faced with shorter lead times, which will certainly burden transportation and the rest of the logistics functions;
  2. Manufacturing as it depends on raw materials, components and spare parts to produce goods and services via the transformation process. As markets expand exponentially and as 3D printing becomes more of a reality than a rarity, product design and production could be performed at a consumer’s home. Eventually it could even become an office or even a home appliance. If this is the case then the demand for logistics services such as transportation, warehousing and demand management could even decrease in line with the reduction in production; and
  3. The services industry. It is estimated that 85% of all jobs in the USA are service oriented. As there is such a wide spectrum of service providers ranging from hotels, hairdressers, hospitals etc., the growth of services and service providers will increase exponentially with an associated decline in manufacturing (as a result of 3D, robotics, and outsourcing etc.), This will put a burden on the supply chain as it will have to keep up with such growth in the service industry.

Distance Education Rises to the Occasion during the CoVID-19 lockdown

Distance Education Rises to the Occasion during the CoVID-19 lockdown

Distance Learning, the Keeper of Higher Education during a Worldwide Pandemic

The challenges facing institutions of Higher Learning during the CoVID-19 lockdown have left many with no option but to turn to online learning to avoid disruptions to learning and teaching programmes across the globe.  Fortunately, the IMM Graduate School has not been caught off guard during the Coronavirus pandemic, nor has it been left scrambling to keep learning and teaching going. For the most part it is business as usual.

We have already spent the past several years, implementing cutting edge online learning principles, and as such “going online” has meant minimal disruption in our learning environment designed and built to encourage optimal student engagement for critical thinking and problem solving. For a number of years already, we have been embracing technology to provide opportunities for students who would otherwise not have the opportunity to study.

We have also during this time considered, monitored and reviewed various aspects impacting learning and teaching in the online environment to find what works best for distance students. In so doing, we have been able to fine-tune the online learning and teaching experience by acting on the feedback of all role players to our digital learning and teaching environment.

The attitude that online learning is a ‘watered down’ version of ‘real’ education couldn’t be further from the truth and such attitudes have the potential to compromise quality. Higher Learning Institutions, Industry and students all need to reflect on their own attitudes to online education. More and more, online learning is proving to be the better solution.

Digital learning and teaching do have some challenges, but also comes with many added advantages and provides a valuable alternative to traditional classroom-based models. Given current learning conditions (in our lockdown situation), South African Learning Institutions, students and teaching staff are being forced to become familiar with the digital education space. Just as with every other industry in 2020, education can never go back to what it was just a few short weeks ago.

Going online is not only a matter of, uploading the ‘paper version’ onto a learner management system and continuing with learning and teaching activities as would be the case in a classroom. There are a number of important points of consideration in digital learning and teaching.

For students who are not used to distance and/or online learning, social distance could present a challenge.  Distance institutions are acutely aware of this and any distance institution worth their salt will build mechanisms into their courses to reduce the sense of distance and isolation and to create a sense of community among students who are geographically far removed from each other. For Students at residential universities catapulted into distance learning, the sense of distance and isolation may be more acute.

Also important is how the rapport between lecturer or tutor and student is initiated and maintained. In a distance learning environment, there is not the luxury of sitting in a group, discussing challenges. Several mechanisms to create a sense of community need to be built into an online course. Creating an online social presence of the lecturer goes a long way to making students feel more secure. Many are turning to webinars as an alternative to the contact class. But you need to consider, how to adapt learning and teaching in webinars to ensure that students are meaningfully engaging with their study material and their teachers?  In the classroom, teaching staff tend to use lecturing as the method of teaching.

Then there is the question of how study material needs to be adapted to make sure students are fully engaged in the absence of a regular contact class. Learning material must be designed to encourage active learning. Technology provides diverse opportunities to design learning resources which are almost 3D in nature and most certainly more interactive than textbooks and class notes.

The digital space has opened up a whole world of opportunity for authentic real-world learning and teaching that produces 4th Industrial Revolution work-ready graduates, whether the world is in crisis or not. The IMM Graduate School has embraced these opportunities, and is continuing to provide fully accredited, internationally recognised distance education during the lockdown and beyond.

What’s Your Company’s Emergency Remote-Work Plan?

What’s Your Company’s Emergency Remote-Work Plan
Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

This week, the coronavirus (or Covid-19) took a more serious turn in the U.S. with warnings that it could very well impact how, when, and where we work:

“Disruption to everyday life may be severe,” Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, cautioned at a news conference Tuesday. “Schools could be closed, mass public gatherings suspended, and businesses forced to have employees work remotely.”

The global spread of the virus may be a moment that reveals whether employers are ready to respond rapidly to unexpected workplace changes. Business travel could decrease or come to a full stop. More employees may need to work outside of local “business hours” and use video conferencing to operate across time zones. And, if it gets bad enough, many could indeed be asked, or request, to work remotely.

Are organizations ready? Chances are probably not. But even for those open to rethinking how the work would get done, are they ready for the inevitable post-crisis question: “Why don’t we do this all the time?”

How do you prepare your organization to not only flexibly respond to this potential disruption, but also to use it as an opportunity to reimagine work broadly? Here are five steps to get started:

  1. Acknowledge the possibility that all or part of your workforce may need to work remotely.

Hoping and praying it doesn’t happen, or simply ignoring it, is not a strategy. Neither is handing everyone a laptop and saying “Go work someplace else” on the day they expand wide-scale quarantines. Plan as if the only way to remain operational will be for as many employees as possible to work remotely. Gather a cross-functional team together now that includes business-line leaders, IT, HR, communications, and facilities to start to plan for different scenarios and optimize execution, should circumstances require a rapid response.

  1. Map out jobs and tasks that could be affected.

Note which roles and duties: 1) Can be done, even partially, without a physical presence in the workplace, 2) Cannot be done, even somewhat, outside of the physical office, and 3) Not sure.

Challenge any potentially inaccurate default assumptions about specific jobs you may have thought couldn’t be done remotely. And for those in the “not sure” column, be willing to experiment. For example, for years, I’ve been told, “Administrative assistants can’t work flexibly.” And, for years, I’ve worked with teams of administrative assistants to prove that is not true. Yes, certain tasks they complete require physical presence, but those can be planned for. The majority of their tasks can happen effectively outside of the traditional model of work and benefit the business.

  1. Audit available IT hardware and software, and close any gaps in access and adoption. 

Assess the comfort level with specific applications, such as video conferencing and other collaboration/communication platforms. Where you find gaps, provide training and opportunities for practice before people need to use them. Real-time mastery is not optimal and is inefficient. Identify devices owned by the organization that people could use and clarify acceptable “bring your own” phone and laptop options. Determine if there are any data-security issues to consider and how best to address them beforehand.

  1. Set up a communications protocol in advance.

This communications plan needs to outline: how to reach everybody (e.g., all contact information in one place, primary communication channels clarified — email, IM, Slack, etc.); how employees are expected to respond to customers; and how and when teams will coordinate and meet.  

  1. Identify ways to measure performance that could inform broader change.

After the flexible response period is over, this data will allow you to reflect on what worked, what didn’t, and why. The data will also prepare you in advance to answer the inevitable question once the crisis has passed, “Why don’t we do this all the time?” Depending upon the outcomes, you may decide to continue certain aspects of the flexible response permanently. For example, perhaps you cut business travel by 25% and substitute video conferencing. You determine afterward that about 80% of those meetings were equally as effective virtually. Therefore, a 20% decrease in business travel will continue, but this time as part of the organization’s sustainability strategy to cut carbon emissions.

Global health emergencies, like Covid-19, are scary, disruptive, and confusing for everyone. And if you plan and nothing happens? Then, at minimum, you have an organized, flexible work disaster response ready the next time there’s a challenge to operational continuity, which chances are, there will be.

Article as posted in Harvard Business Review

Yost.C (2020) What’s Your Company’s Emergency Remote-Work Plan <https://hbr.org/2020/02/whats-your-companys-emergency-remote-work-plan?ab=hero-main-text>.  [Accessed 03 March 2020].