This week I had the pleasure of speaking to almost 200 supply chain practitioners from 69 different companies at the Supply Chain Forum hosted by the University of Tennessee’s highly regarded business school. The assembly, now in its twentieth year, is an exemplar of business/university partnership in pursuit of ever better supply chain performance. Combining fresh scholarship with senior executive views from the front line, the forum does a good job of advancing three important causes at once.
Better supply chains
Presentations from Lowe’s CSCO, Steve Szilagyi, Colgate-Palmolive’s VP of Global Customer Service & Logistics, Josue Munoz, and Sears’ CSCO, Bill Hutchinson, offered real-time lessons in leadership, organisational design and innovation. The Q&A, offline discussions and hot topic breakouts surrounding these keynote sessions were tangible and specific, with attendees clearly able to apply what they were hearing immediately upon getting back to work.
Colgate’s SKU simplification approach was a typical example of what attendees heard. COO-level philosophy about the benefits of shedding “bad” complexity while fostering “good” complexity was made completely tangible. The example Munoz offered included not only a story, but also metrics, outcomes and even pictures. For anyone wrestling with SKU proliferation the takeaway was an initiative that is ready to go as is.
The University of Tennessee is fairly prolific in terms of scholarly research on the topic of supply chain. It is ranked third by Gartner in an analysis of programme depth, breadth and influence. Professors Ted Stank and J. Paul Dittman who lead the forum are also, respectively, Chairman of the Board of the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals and author of a widely read Harvard Business Review article entitled “Are you the weakest link in your supply chain?” It would be easy for these academics to sit in their ivory tower and preach. They don’t.
In fact, research white papers published by Tennessee include important applied topics like supply chain risk and 3PL relationship management. These topics are driven and sometimes sponsored by companies including UPS Capital, IBM and Kenco. A forthcoming report is taking the topic of platform management from its roots in automotive into the worlds of food and other consumer products. The sponsor for this effort is Mondelez – about as far as you can get from making cars.
Research that answers questions currently in the minds of practitioners is obviously good if we want better supply chains now. I would argue it is also good from a pure knowledge advancement perspective since supply chain management, unlike classical history or physics, is a discipline that is emerging from practice and therefore is best advanced academically in the field than in scholarly journals.
Possibly most important, however, is the role this event plays in planting seeds for the future by bringing promising students together with eager employers. The university graduates 300 students a year from the undergraduate major. Fifty are handpicked to participate in the forum, which includes a speed networking session and plenty of staff opportunities to help out with the industry attendees. Another 40 MBAs are also tasked to contribute as organisers, sharing on session design and co-ordination. From a recruiting standpoint, the event is a neat shortcut around the sometimes overloaded career centre, especially since so many attendees are alumnae of the university.
The forum has also just introduced a new idea called “SCM Students of Distinction”, which pre-selects promising supply chain majors from the sophomore class (second year of four for non-Americans). Just like recruiting athletes, the talent search in supply chain is creeping ever farther back into youth.
Tennessee is not alone
The praise I offer here is in no way exclusive to Knoxville. Similar partnerships exist at most top supply chain universities, including those with deep formal programmes like Michigan State, MIT, Cranfield and Penn State, and those whose supply chains programmes are embedded in business curricula like Stanford, Northwestern and Cambridge.
I am often asked about how supply chain practitioners can collaborate with universities for talent development, research and recruiting. The answer is that most are eager to form such relationships and many have or are building programs just like Tennessee’s.
They’d love to hear from you.