MIT Research Scientist blends passion for sustainability and supply chain to equip a new era of leaders

By | 4 minute read | January 9, 2020

This is part of our #SupplyChainHero series where we shine a spotlight on professionals who continuously strive to make supply chains better.

Dr. Alexis Bateman, Research Scientist and Director of MIT Sustainable Supply Chains at the MIT Center for Transportation & Logistics (CTL) describes herself as she does many of her students, having “fallen into supply chain.” Now a convert to supply chain, she shares her enthusiasm, insights and advice to help other supply chain professionals grow their expertise and value.

How did you get into supply chain?

My career started on the public sector side in environmental management and sustainability science, when I was hired by MIT CTL to bring the sustainability perspective to supply chain. The thinking was I would learn supply chain and become “a believer.” That was more than seven years ago and they were right. Once you realize supply chain is the key to everything, you never go back.

What defines a sustainable supply chain?

Everyone defines it differently depending on their industry, product and where they sit in the supply chain. Social sustainability is about fair wages, fair trade and quality of life. Whereas environmental sustainability is about emissions, water, waste and pollution. The reality of supply chain sustainability is to understand that you are quantifying your impact and critically tracking progress over time, leading to a goal that’s relative to your impact as an organization and also relative to the entire supply chain. In sum, the key to becoming a more sustainable supply chain is to recognize your impact and make persistent, measurable change.

What are your students’ motivations for studying supply chain? What are their main interests and concerns?

Our goal is to drive supply chain education and research into practice. Many students fell into the broader area of supply chain from logistics. But the definition of supply chain has broadened to incorporate so many other functions. Our students are looking for the analytical tools to be able to understand how to create a well-functioning supply chain – from procurement to logistics to network design and all the intermediary functions – along with the bigger picture, understanding trends that will impact supply chain. They tell us this training allows them to differentiate themselves for so many jobs.

What are the key areas of supply chain expertise and “soft skills” that you work with students to develop?

At MIT, we focus on key analytics approaches including linear programming, optimization, and risk assessment. We give students a solid toolkit to get insight into the supply chain, how it is operating and how to shift things to create more efficiencies and value. We loop that into the global context that supply chains operate in and emerging approaches and enabling factors, like machine learning and AI. It’s important to understand how to shift with these trends and technologies that will disrupt how things are traditionally done. This starts to get at the softer skills of how to be an agile professional and recognize the value you can offer in partnership with these changing tides and embed them in your practices.

We also teach critical thinking –  how to deeply think about a problem and avoid unintended consequences and pitfalls by doing some prework.

What new areas of research are you are working on?

There are many, but one involves our collaboration with the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals (CSCMP) where we will publish research on the state of supply chain sustainability in advance of Earth Day this year. One thing I’ve seen is that supply chain sustainability is intangible. People don’t know where to start because there’s no easy entry point. We are trying to give supply chain professionals an easier entry point by providing more accessible information on what supply chain sustainability is and how to integrate it into their roles. Our report, coming out next year, is built around a survey we sent to supply chain professionals to see what they understand and what events or corporate activities are driving certain actions, so we can shed light on the state of supply chain sustainability today.

What advice do you have for supply chain professionals?

My personal advice is to remember that almost everyone can offer a teachable moment. Give others a chance to speak first. Supply chain is happening so fast, that if someone is doing something different from you that can inform what you’re going to do, keep an open ear. Valuing information from peers and partners and the larger community has paid huge dividends for me. I also learn from my students every single day. And I see that successful students are those that are open to listening to others and collaborating, which in supply chain is key.

Want to learn more from IBM’s supply chain heroes? Click here for additional stories. What’s your #SupplyChainHero story?

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