Plenty of research exists—from academia, consultancies, and research groups—that addresses these questions. Typically such research will include surveys of senior managers that captures their sustainability plans and goals. But less common is research that analyzes the supply chain and operations management practitioner. And even more rare is research that looks at both the practitioner and senior managers—research that identifies gaps in management thinking that leads to different perceptions, priorities, and barriers to advancing supply chain sustainability.
This year, APICS and PwC, a leading consulting firm, have combined forces to study these less-common, yet vitally important issues. It is an excellent match—APICS has an impressive network of practitioners and research, and PwC has done extensive research from the senior management perspective. Together, we focused on paying close attention, in survey and analysis terms, to both senior managers and supply chain and operations management professionals. By comparing and analyzing their responses, a clearer picture emerged of the root causes that slow sustainability efforts in supply chain strategy.
Initially, the opportunity to produce such unique research came in 2011, when APICS began studying the difficulties practitioners face in advancing sustainability maturity. In 2012, follow-up research suggested that one major challenge was the enterprise’s differing perspectives on supply chain sustainability strategies, expectations, and planning and execution.
Discovering supply chain sustainability trends
The combined APICS-PwC research revealed gaps on a number of fronts. For example, many executives and senior managers mentioned the importance of long-established sustainability trends and policies at their organizations. However, 53 percent said they believed their employer’s sustainability history was unknown to them, or its history was less than five years old. Clearly, different perspectives about the history of sustainability were in play.
The combined research also revealed that the practitioner and senior manager perceive different barriers. The existence of supply chain sustainability strategy is one example. Only 5 percent of executives and directors reported that they had no supply chain sustainability strategy, while 21 percent of practitioner managers reported having no supply chain sustainability strategy. Further, practitioners said that leadership does not provide mandates, incentives, and resources to turn sustainable strategies into action. Other respondents added that significant confusion existed about the scope and goals of supply chain sustainability. In sharp contrast, 55 percent of executives stated that supply chain strategy exists and is fully communicated across the organization, or that supply chain strategy exists but has not yet reached all levels of the organization.
Another key difference for the two groups was in realizing value from supply chain sustainability. The survey included questions that asked for respondents’ perception of company performance. Two thirds of companies that reported they did not realize value from supply chain sustainability also stated that they had no practical measurement or tracking in place for supply chain sustainability initiatives. In contrast, only 22 percent of companies who did report realizing value also reported they had no practical measurement or tracking in place.
Ideally, both senior managers and supply chain and operations professionals should work toward increasing sustainability with the use of objective, practical, and insightful tracking and measurement resources. These two groups can more closely align their perspectives. Following are several ideas to consider:
- A communication or feedback path should exist between management levels to ensure organization-wide practice is on target, particularly where practitioner responsibilities are key. The practitioner must be able to work through prioritization, conflicts, and master planning and scheduling. Keep the practitioner updated on detailed strategy. How the practitioner executes supply chain sustainability strategy influences sustainability practice elsewhere in the organization.
- There must be effective and practical education and training to ensure best practices exist throughout the organization. Shared use and reporting from tools, systems, terms, metrics should be the result—where education is backed up with incentives, real-world use of resources, and best practices.
- Help ensure executives and directors provide support for staff ideas. Executives and directors say they are enthusiastic about staff ideas toward sustainability and believe there are more metrics and goals in place, but managers and their teams see it differently. Fewer managers report getting support from senior management for implementing staff ideas.
Considering these ideas may help broaden engagement by breaking down silos between senior managers and supply chain and operations management professionals. Remember, effective sustainability efforts do more than help workers feel good, they have the potential to improve brand image, encourage innovation, promote cost cutting, and comply with government regulations.