Women of the Supply Chain: Responsibility, Collaboration and Bathroom Lines

Hanging out with Kinaxis, the relatively small and always interesting supply chain vendor from Ottawa, Canada, never fails to be an eye-opening experience. It’s not just that I get to meet with a vendor and a loyal cadre of customers who are collectively pushing the envelope on all things supply chain, it’s that sometimes they’re pushing an envelope I hadn’t seen before in my peregrinations in the supply chain world.

This year’s Kinexions user conference was no different. What I heard from Kinaxis about taking Rapid Response, its in-memory supply chain planning product, further into the realm of collaboration by pushing users to self-identify their areas of responsibility represented an excellent strategic direction on the part of Kinaxis.

I also learned something from observing the lines forming outside of the bathrooms, which, if you’ll bear with me, I promise will actually reveal one of the reasons I like where Kinaxis is heading with Rapid Response.

I feel obliged to state unequivocally that I don’t usually pay much attention to plumbing and people, except when it comes to pure self-interest. But I couldn’t help noticing that the queue for the women’s room at Kinexions was one of the longest I had ever seen at a tech conference, other than my recent visit to Workday ‘s user conference.

Of course, what I’m really talking about is the proportion of women in attendance at Kinexions relative to both the number of men at Kinexions and the gender ratios found at most tech conferences. And while the lines outside the women’s room at the recent Workday conference that I attended were even longer, there’s an important difference between the disproportionate presence of women at a supply chain conference and the even greater disproportionality at a HRMS conference.

HRMS has always been, to be blunt, a comfortable domain for women in an otherwise all-male corporate world – comfortable perhaps more for the men than the women. This phenomenon is identical to the way minorities studying in the era of affirmative action were often shunted toward the social services – in order to serve their “people” – instead of being directed towards more challenging and intellectually rewarding careers in pure research, medicine, or, God forbid, the humanities. Similarly, HR was the woman’s track in business schools back when the women of my generation were getting their MBAs. This bias towards HR as a women’s field has continued, with a Forbes article from 2011 noting that 70 percent of HR jobs were held by women at that time. Judging by the lines at Workday’s conference, that ratio looks like it still holds.

When I started looking for data to back up bathroom line observation at Kinexions, I was surprised at how much women are represented in SCM, considering that the bias towards women in the HRMS world was never at play in SCM. One data point, from the National Center of Women in Technology (NCWIT), pegged the percent of women in operations research – the nerdy upper echelon of the supply chain world – at 55 percent in 2012, the highest percentage of the eight tech professions cited (#2 was database administrators, a profession where 37 percent of the positions are held by women.) This is a lot better than the percent of CIOs that are women – 24 percent – or the overall percent of women in high-tech – 26 percent – also according to the NCWIT.

So why are there so many women in supply chain roles? Maybe there is a natural bias, though one that speaks to women’s genuine strengths and not men’s discomfort. One interesting article in SCM World cited a survey of global supply chain companies in which 74% of men and 96% women surveyed believe women possess the special skills – labeled in the article as emotional intelligence, empathy and self-awareness – that are useful in managing supply chains. (This same article also claimed that only 10 percent of the senior leadership roles in the Fortune 500 were women – which means there may be a glass ceiling for the NCWIT 55 percenters who want to move up to executive positions.)

So it’s interesting to note that the number of women at Kinexions came in at 23 percent, according to the company, a number more in line with overall tech industry averages, but still higher than the percent of women who work at Google, for example (17 percent, according to IEEE Spectrum), and higher than what appears, anecdotally, to be the average at most tech conferences.

I asked Trevor Miles, Kinaxis’ resident deep-thinker, why there were more women at supply chain conferences like Kinexions, and his response dovetails nicely with those special skills I noted above. According to Trevor, women appear to be better at cooperation and collaboration and to be more open to alternative points of view, all skills that are valued in the supply chain world.

I know I’m riding a fine line between stereotyping and arm-chair sociology, but I don’t think the notion that women on average possess these characteristics in greater percentages than men is too far-fetched. What is certainly true is that supply chain planning and management don’t lend themselves to absolute truths and command and control hierarchical management. In the world of supply chain planning there are relatively few irrefutable numbers and an over-abundance of options and alternatives that need to be weighed carefully in order for an optimal decision to be made.

This means that trade-offs, compromise, collaboration, and a whole host of people skills tend to matter a lot in getting the job done. It takes teamwork, and not just individual initiative, to consider multiple and even opposing or non-obvious alternatives in order to run a supply chain. And that teamwork doesn’t just include fellow employees: Myriad stakeholders, sometimes working across multiple companies simultaneously, must be marshalled in the service of supply chain excellence.

The fact that there is rarely, if ever, a “one true number” or single, irrefutable way to solve a supply chain problem dovetails nicely with the value of tool like Rapid Response, which makes modeling and sharing different scenarios particularly easy and efficient . Indeed, the fact that Kinaxis’ Rapid Response enables a high degree of collaborative decision-making – its use practically demands collaboration, the consideration of alternatives, teamwork, and consensus-building – makes it less surprising that Kinaxis, like the supply chain world in which it lives, can draw a disproportionate number of women to its conferences.

Which leads me to Kinaxis’ plans for Rapid Response. The company has been putting a lot more emphasis on a feature that allows stakeholders to identify – in a social collaboration-lite function inside Rapid Response – the areas that they are individually responsible for and, therefore, willing to help with when a problem in supply chain planning and management arises. What this means is that when a constraint appears, or an order suddenly changes, Rapid Response is able to connect the different stakeholders who share responsibility for a particular product, supply, region, customer, partner, or what have you, and get them working collaborative on a resolution. It’s a way to take the natural collaborative tendencies of supply chain planners and managers – regardless of their gender stereotypes – and enhance those tendencies with a collaboration tool.

The other reason I like this approach is that it serves as a justification for my position on why general-purpose collaboration tools haven’t really set the world on fire, despite the incessant hype around these tools. What Kinaxis is offering is the opposite of a general-purpose tool: the company has picked an essential and well-known business process and injected a new, relatively simple, and highly valuable form of collaboration. Of course you could do this with a general-purpose collaboration tool, but it makes much more sense to have the collaborative process function in the context of the business process and its tool, in this case Rapid Response.

This responsibility function will have a lot of applicability to other areas where Kinaxis wants to take what is fundamentally a superlative planning tool. Areas like capital equipment planning, asset management, project management, and the like are ripe for the things that Rapid Response does best: to go where planning is hard and help manage the path to compromise.

Whether Kinaxis will simultaneously drive an even greater participation for women outside the supply chain world remains to be seen. But it’s important to note, considering the current sturm und drang about diversity in high-tech, particularly gender diversity, that there are domains like supply chain and tools like Rapid Response that seem to attract more than the usual number of women, for all the right reasons.

In an industry that liberally festoons itself with the trappings of hipness, the de facto status of women as a minority borders on the absurd, as do the excuses, even in companies with female CEOs, for the lack of women in decision-making positions. I doubt Kinaxis set out to upend traditional gender norms and favor women and their unique skills when it developed Rapid Response, but it’s nice to note that moving the needle in the supply chain world can also move the needle in the larger society in which we live. For the better.

 

 

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