Campus Security

How Schools Can Combat the Supply Chain Crisis

“Supply chain” is now a household buzzword. For school administrators and educators, ongoing supply chain disruptions continue to create challenges in their course materials and equipment, nutrition programs, and the learning environment itself.

When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit, district leaders and higher ed administrators were forced to scramble and rapidly adapt operations to ensure the safety of students and staff. Many realized they didn’t have access to the personal protective equipment (PPE) and facility maintenance supplies they needed, because it was the first time school systems had ever needed to procure such large quantities of these materials. Education leaders were tasked with identifying reliable suppliers who could deliver high-demand supplies.

The pandemic exposed the faults of conventional wisdom regarding supply chains: that it’s most efficient and effective to have a single supplier or source for materials. Especially when demand is high, it’s best to have access to a large and diverse pool of suppliers and manufacturers. This strategy not only helps with ensuring access to supplies but also helps get them at the lowest possible cost.

Our ability to pivot to remote/hybrid working and learning environments served us well. We learned that we can do this in the future, if and when it happens again. But as schools shifted back to in-person learning, we also learned of the growing importance of maintaining the built environment and the impact of indoor air quality, lighting, and our overall facilities on educational outcomes.

What we learned about the supply chain and its impact on educational facilities

One of the lessons from this pandemic and resulting supply chain crisis is that the parts supply chain is highly fragmented and completely disconnected from the education facilities management strategy. This is not too different from the industrial space. Maintenance organizations will prioritize training, reliability, and technology while almost completely ignoring the parts supply chain, even though it is clear that their maintenance supplies and spare-parts supply chain is mission-critical and essential to their ability to deliver on their mission.

The supply chain isn’t typically considered in risk management plans for K–12 or higher ed institutions because, historically, it hasn’t supported or enabled schools’ overall facility maintenance strategies. The procedural administrative nature of educational workflows has led to sourcing and procurement infrastructures that aren’t designed for resiliency or agility. With limited in-house procurement expertise and no data on historical purchases, inventory or the work orders associated with them, school districts and higher ed institutions have been completely reliant on a legacy supply base that is now crippled by the current supply chain crisis.

What we can do going forward

The unprecedented nature of the COVID-19 pandemic exposed gaps in the supply chain but also provided opportunities to strengthen it. We’ve realized that many K–12 school districts and higher ed institutions have outdated models for supply chain management and procurement, and they lack the technological platforms and processes that other industries have put into place. There’s an opportunity for district leaders to learn from what we’ve experienced and modernize procurement operations.

While it’s clear that the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic will continue to impact the supply chain well into 2023, there are steps that school leaders can take to mitigate their risk and drive improvement.

Designate your materials/parts supply chain as mission-critical and part of your risk management plans. The COVID-19 pandemic caused many institutions to
rethink their procurement processes. District leaders have faced an especially daunting challenge: to uphold changing guidelines, plan for numerous contingencies, and manage budgets. To ensure schools have the right equipment to operate safely, districts must break down silos and provide additional visibility into the procurement process. Instead of budgeting for point solutions (e.g., this is a solution to the ventilation problem, this is a solution to the mask problem), districts must view this as an end-to-end, interconnected supply chain.

By framing the supply chain as essential and defining what success looks like for your district, you’ll be able to assign responsibility—either insourced within your institution, outsourced to a third-party, or a hybrid approach. To avoid creating (or exacerbating) internal silos, districts must have a person who is responsible for overseeing the entire supply chain process from start to finish. This is quickly becoming an essential role. Holding someone accountable for measurable results and outcomes helps drive performance. If everyone is responsible, then nobody is.

Analyze your data. A common challenge institutions experience is a lack of visibility into the current stock of items, suppliers’ stock, and overall pricing trends. Procurement teams need to use data and digital tools not only to understand their key suppliers in each category, but also to identify the backup and tertiary supply sources and where they’re sourcing their materials from. Having these digital tools enables organizations to take what used to be tribal knowledge, unlock the power of data, and democratize it across the organization for a more connected supply chain. Review historical purchases. Identify frequently used items, essential cleaning supplies, machine spares, and critical items like air filters, sanitizers and PPE. Identify who your suppliers are for each of these items. And then go one step further to identify the Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) and the part or item number.

Manage an inventory. Relying on just-in-time inventory is risky, but stockpiling unneeded supplies is equally dangerous. The data analysis will help you identify backups and approve functional equivalents for purchasing in the future. It also helps you establish safety stock on premise or at a central location for the district.

Forge stronger relationships with your primary suppliers and other partners. Contract with backup suppliers—secondary and tertiary—to make dynamic marketplaces a part of your supplier community. Building a stronger ecosystem helps mitigate the risk of not being able to get supplies that are critical.

Evaluate and invest in purpose-built technology (or a partner that can provide this) to manage the supply chain strategically. While eCommerce has made considerable strides, up until the pandemic, technology in the procurement space was largely antiquated and not easily integrated into existing enterprise resource platforms. Organizations are now working across the digital supply chain ecosystem and easily integrating systems through APIs to take advantage of technologies that are already commonplace in financial analysis, customer management, and human resources. Digital supply chain integration strategies harness the power of innovations such as Big Data, the Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence, machine learning and augmented reality to streamline operations and lower acquisition costs.

  • APIs – to seamlessly connect supply chain tech with other systems 
  • Sourcing & Procurement 
  • Ecommerce & Mobile Solutions for Technicians on-site at the schools 
  • Inventory management, storage and control (how inventory is distributed and tracked)
  • Data management and analytics 

The next normal

COVID-19 has forced leaders in every industry to rethink the way they approach the daily routine. Education is no different. District leaders and administrators must be honest about the challenges they are facing and willing to look outside their industry and geographical location for solutions. Being collaborative, sharing best practices, and researching new ways to approach the issues presented by the pandemic should be a top priority.

The pandemic is affecting all of us in different ways, and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution that will meet the needs of every district. Administrators, teachers, and other staff members should collaborate with one another to identify strategies that make sense for their school communities.

Added flexibility and the ability to pivot quickly are necessary for overcoming challenges related to the pandemic. Defining a supply chain strategy that considers the current environment is more critical than ever before. Having a trusted partner to lean on makes all the difference in a crisis. At SDI, we’ve built our foundation on being able to provide expertise to our partners, helping them maximize efficiency and streamline their processes.

This article originally appeared in the March / April 2022 issue of Campus Security & Life Safety magazine.

This article originally appeared in the March / April 2022 issue of Spaces4Learning.