How Can Supply Managers Keep Everyone Happy?

Supply managers walk a fine line.

Their job is to maintain the often delicate balance between internal customers, suppliers and buyers. It's a tricky juggling act even in the best of times. So, what happens when budgets get squeezed? How are supply managers faring during this protracted stretch of cost-cutting and tight inventories?

A new study by Oregon State University supply chain researcher Zhaohui Wu took a look into those questions, and the results may surprise you.

Wu hypothesized that since research has shown that companies believe supply managers should have the ability to "wear many hats" and take on multiple roles as needed, that this ability would have a positive relationship with the manager's interpersonal relationships particularly these days, when negotiation and collaboration are so critical to business success.

The data he collected indicates precisely the opposite.

After in-depth interviews with 11 supply managers and their key contacts in eight diverse U.S. companies, Wu found that supply managers who excel at being the "middleman" are viewed in a more negative light by suppliers.

"Suppliers seem to think they are acting fake, that the supply manager is putting on different faces," Wu says. "They questioned the sincerity of the manager, and the better that manager was at navigating between the roles, the more the supplier doubted his intentions."

Now, that's a paradox.

There's no doubt that the role of the supply manager has changed. Supply chains are global, complex and interrelated. Budgets are tight. Supply chain managers aren't "just" number crunchers anymore. They're also expected to be good negotiators, who can focus on quality control, time constraints, compliance, managing expectations and contracts.

But, someone who successfully accomplishes all this is then viewed negatively by suppliers?

I agree with Wu, who concludes that more research is needed to uncover how managers can integrate their roles smoothly.

"Maybe some of the supply chain managers are like George Clooney, just naturally good at smoothly navigating relationships, we don't know," Wu says. "Or perhaps there are tools that can help form a coherent identity. The cognitive aspect is missing in supply chain research; in this paper we are just measuring the behavioral aspect."

The paper will be published in the Journal of Business Research (subscription required).

TAGS: Finance
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