Top supply chain universities: the question of reputation

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Who’s number one?

One week after an overdose of college football in the United States, this question rages on. In the rest of the world it means nothing, but the underlying thirst for respect, recognition and prestige absolutely matters for parents with kids about to submit university applications and for those still building careers.

So, what does it mean to be “the best” supply chain university now and in the future?

Rankings rankle

Google the question “what is the top supply chain university?” and four rankings appear on the first page: Gartner, US News, Eduniversal and SCM World. The methodologies vary, so naturally the lists are different, but all include at least some element of reputation as a driver of rank order. Unfortunately, reputation acts as a sort of ranking flywheel reinforcing conventional wisdom and potentially distorting the truth.

Ask hiring professionals what they think of this question and you’ll often hear the following, quoted anonymously from a 2016 SCM World survey respondent: “I don’t mind the brand of university, as much as his/her hands-on experience with supply chain.”

And yet, the rankings matter because they drive student applications, which drives selectivity and therefore raw talent. A few slots up or down in the rankings can have an immediate and measurable impact. You may want to look away, but you can’t.

Standard of excellence versus standard of innovation

Academia as an industry is very old. Its standard of excellence dictates a painstakingly slow process of peer review for research publication, which governs who gets tenure at the most prestigious universities. This is fine perhaps for palaeontology, history or physics, but not supply chain.

Supply chain is a field science, moving so fast in response to forces of digitisation, globalisation and financial innovation that classical university standards of excellence can’t keep up. What’s needed, according to supply chain executives surveyed about the ideal skill mix in 2020 and beyond, is some combination of communication, strategic thinking and change management.

Skills like these develop fastest in the world of work, which may explain some of what we at SCM World saw in our latest ranking data compiled in late 2016.

This rank order reflects only what supply chain practitioners think are the top three universities as “markers of supply chain talent”. It naturally rewards the famous like Michigan State, MIT and Penn State, but it also flags a few that stand out more because of their connection to industry than their historical prestige.

Among the most obvious are Western Michigan University and Western Washington University. In each case, our survey respondents’ comments focused on practical education and real-world work.

“One unique aspect of (Western Washington’s) Manufacturing and Supply Chain Management program is the two required internships in order to graduate. The faculty support in attaining those internships are fantastic as well.”

               “At Western Michigan University, almost all students work at least one and many times multiple internships during their undergraduate years. Students also have the opportunity to work on real-world supply chain projects with businesses and government entities to solve problems and bring value – as part of Bronco Force.”

These two universities are not unique in requiring internships. In fact, Gartner’s comprehensive ranking methodology rewards internships and identifies dozens that formally offer them. The key takeaway is that university-level supply chain education (and research) is inextricably linked to work in the real world of business.

Obvious, perhaps, but believe me, the true thought leaders in supply chain academia often feel they are screaming into the wind when fighting for resources, recognition and the right to innovate in the sometimes sclerotic power structure of big universities.

An impending shakeup

The Khan Academy, massive open online courses (better known as MOOCs) and the burgeoning movement to open global campus sites show that university presidents are feeling the heat. Each is part of an epic shift away from education as a preparatory phase in life and towards continuous learning throughout life. This phenomenon is especially vital in supply chain. Insurgents in the rankings like WWU and WMU merit attention because they foretell change.

After all, even Harvard Business School started life as a vocational upstart often scorned by its parent across the river.

Note to readers:  The supply chain university list published in our Beyond Supply Chain blog dated January 6, 2017 reflects a preliminary ranking based on survey data collected in September/October 2016 from 1,094 practitioner respondents to our 2016 Future of Supply Chain survey (Question: “In terms of universities/business schools as markers of supply chain talent, please select your top three from the dropdown list.”) It is not the updated SCM World University 100, first published in February 2016. That report included data from the 2015 FOSC survey plus another set of survey responses collected during an open polling period which was formally closed on January 31, 2016 (the two surveys generated over 2,300 responses in total).

Having been acquired by Gartner, we plan to coordinate with their ongoing research efforts to assess and report on university level supply chain programs.

Author Kevin O'Marah

Chief Content Officer, SCM World

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