As the world navigates a digital transformation that fully embraces artificial intelligence and smart technology, people and human capital also need to fit into the business equation. Many companies are relying on diverse workforces in tandem with advanced technology to extend their global reach and deliver on their missions. This cross-section of innovation and inclusion is exactly where Sriram Narayanan, Kesseler Family Endowed Faculty Fellow and professor of supply chain management, has found himself working to make an impact.

“If we are able to figure both of them out, it’s certainly a step forward in how we are able to visualize companies that can work in somewhat of a frictionless way,” Narayanan said.

Human-centric approach

Narayanan has spent the past several years working alongside other professors, doctoral students, MBA students and nonprofit organizations to uncover how inclusion relates to productivity and innovation for the supply chain industry. Specifically, he is working to answer the question of how to develop supply chain environments that are inclusive for people with a range of disabilities.

In his forthcoming paper titled “Abilities First: Steps to Create a Human-centric, Inclusive Supply Chain,” Narayanan and colleagues lay out the organizational framework for companies to foster widespread inclusion. “Individuals with disabilities are the centerpiece of the approach,” he said.

The paper, which provides a five-step inclusion model, emphasizes the need for stakeholder involvement and human-centric processes to achieve inclusion. “Companies must first have a vision for [inclusion], and when they do the process, it should be carefully mapped out, so it has the best chance of being successful,” Narayanan said.

Narayanan will be a guest on this month’s episode of the Spartan Bizcast, diving more into his research and latest findings from this paper, which is forthcoming in Supply Chain Management Review.

Principal partnerships

Narayanan’s research has been grant-funded by Peckham Foundation, a Lansing-based nonprofit, and has been carried out in partnership with Peckham, Inc. Peckham is known for its values of embracing collaboration and providing job training opportunities for people with significant disabilities or barriers to employment. Narayanan, alongside a senior manufacturing leader from Peckham and an MBA student, has been studying firsthand what it takes to create work environments where employees are comfortable and can focus on their individual abilities.

“Much of the Broad College’s research is focused on practice-driven approaches,” he said. “In our project funded by Peckham Foundation, we are focused on how inclusion of individuals with disabilities on the factory floor impacts productivity and how we can create a workforce that has a diverse range of disability in factory floors.”

Narayanan has also received microgrants from the Peckham Foundation and MSU’s Center for Research in Autism, Intellectual, and Other Neurodevelopmental Disabilities for furthering his ongoing work. Through these grants, he is working to study specific elements of the broader theme of inclusion, such as designing approaches for person-job fit using a supply chain lens and compiling existing assistive technology solutions in job contexts for employees with disabilities.

As Narayanan explained, inclusion is a complex issue that is intertwined with many other social and cultural topics, including poverty, health, and financial well-being as well as disability. Narayanan believes that inclusion at all levels will “make it effortless for the broader organizations to work very well together.”

Impact on supply chain industry

So, what is the importance of inclusion for the supply chain industry specifically? As Narayanan and colleagues explain in their forthcoming paper, “The baseline output of a supply chain process (including lean) is only as good as the input processes that nurture individual abilities and allow them to flourish in work settings — the fundamental law of inclusion.”

As the saying goes, you get out what you put in. By including people with a range of abilities (and disabilities) in the supply chain, companies can potentially foster higher productivity and a motivated workforce. The knowledge that inclusion can improve business output has been supported by the research of Narayanan and many others.

Narayanan is currently involved with multiple working papers on this topic. In one study co-authored with a doctoral student at MSU, they find that “leaders with disabilities can help employees with disabilities achieve higher productivity,” he shared.

The need for inclusion

Aside from the supportive research results, Narayanan also explained how there is a real need for inclusion within supply chain management, which is twofold:

“First, there is a shortage of talent in supply chain management … and there is space to focus on individuals with disabilities as a source of talent to fill this void,” he said. People with disabilities are typically underemployed, so employing them to fill the gap could be a win-win.

Second, when companies open themselves up to hiring individuals with disabilities, they are also inviting innovation into their processes. “The less-talked-about issue is that by employing individuals with disabilities, companies by nature have to become more innovative,” Narayanan said. “The company has to innovate to make the best use of these individuals’ talents, as you would for anyone else.”

Narayanan stressed that the biggest takeaway from all his work has been for companies to embrace processes that emphasize employee abilities first to truly maximize their potential. Companies need to create intentional processes to foster inclusion and invite innovation as a means for doing so.

“It’s very important that we think about processes and structures for companies to have in place that can create such inclusive and innovative environments,” he said. “That’s what I think should be relevant in the future of supply chain management, going down the road.”

Curious to learn more about research from the Broad College? Tune into the Spartan Bizcast each month to hear from Broad faculty on how our work is making a difference for the business world. Narayanan will be the featured guest on the November 2019 episode of the Spartan Bizcast podcast to air later this month.