As one who has spent a long time in industry and a significant amount of time in the academic world, I am convinced that the following is an important truth: The academic community is trying to reach out to the business world, and business would be well-served by taking greater advantage of those opportunities for learning and collaboration.
Some personal background will help to explain how I reached this conclusion. After graduating with a Ph.D. in Industrial Engineering in 1973, I decided that the business world, not the academic world, was the place for me. I yearned for the opportunity to tackle "real world" problems, and that is exactly what I did in a business career that spanned more than three decades. At times I had staff duties, such as corporate planning; at other times, I found myself in a line position, including vice president of logistics for Whirlpool Corporation, under pressure to achieve tough, "stretch" goals.
During those years, I had a reasonable amount of exposure to the academic community. Several professors provided good, practical advice that helped me address issues my company was facing, but I often wondered if their willingness to collaborate with business was the exception rather than the rule. Over the years, moreover, I heard and wondered about stereotypes and myths regarding the academic community in general.
Those stereotypes did not influence me when I decided to leave industry after 32 years and move to the academic world; I simply wanted a second career in teaching and consulting. Currently, I manage Supply Chain Forums at the University of Tennessee's business school and teach on its logistics faculty. After three years of working very closely with a wide range of faculty, I feel that I am in a good position not only to separate the myths from reality but also to help bridge the gulf between industry and academia.
How business perceives academia
In general, businesspeople are impressed with many of the academics with whom they work. Practitioners come in contact with the academic community in various ways, including at industry conferences, in executive-education sessions, or through consulting relationships. In spite of positive interactions like these, practitioners often develop notions about professors that are based on a number of misunderstandings.
Businesspeople intuitively understand that academics' key performance indicators (KPIs) are significantly different than their own, and that leads many of them to buy into myths regarding the academic community, such as:
The view from campus
In my own environment at the University of Tennessee, at least, I have found that, in the vast majority of cases, such stereotypes are indeed untrue. The faculty is passionate about teaching, and professors care intensely about their responsibility to prepare students for the future. Their research focuses on practical, real-world problems. The results of that research, however, are not always fully communicated to practitioners. After all, few practitioners read the academic journals.
Most faculty members work extremely hard. In fact, the work pace is similar to that of the business world. Pressures to achieve tenure are intense, and with good reason: Tenure is a traditional step along the academic career path and is definitely not about "retiring on the job."
As a former practitioner, the biggest surprise for me has been the amazing degree of entrepreneurialism that exists among many faculty members. Frankly, it far exceeds that found in much of the corporate world. I think this stems in part from the freedom academics have when it comes to managing their time. In my industry days, I had to attend 35 to 40 meetings a week—an average of seven to eight meetings each day! Far fewer meetings take place in the academic world, which allows faculty greater control over their schedules.
In my opinion, when motivated people have more control over their environment, they become more entrepreneurial. No one works harder than a small business owner. In many ways, university faculty members are in a similar position. They have the freedom to pursue their interests, and that becomes a huge motivator that drives them to work very hard.
Furthermore, it has been surprising to me to see how their research interests align to a great extent with the interests of the business community. For business school faculty, industry is their laboratory. In fact, some universities have developed a wide range of programs that allow them to integrate with the business community, and these are described below.
Universities reach out to business
Business school faculty members know that the relevance of their teaching and research depends on staying close to the business community. A number of universities therefore reach out to business and offer practitioners many opportunities such as:
Let's start with executive education, which is offered by business schools at many universities. A lot of competition exists in the executive-education business; the programs that survive are of extremely high quality and are responsive to the informational needs of industry.
For example, the University of Tennessee offers seven seminars just in the supply chain area. At these highly interactive sessions, participants not only are exposed to the latest thinking in the field but also have the opportunity to discuss common problems with their peers from a wide range of industries and organizations. This results in a very powerful benchmarking experience.
In addition, some companies ask universities to develop and conduct tailored executive-education programs. These programs can train hundreds of people in supply chain excellence for an individual company.
Along with executive training, a number of universities create sponsored forums or consortia, which may be attended by more than 100 people from dozens of companies. The purpose of these organizations is to foster a close relationship between the business and the academic communities for mutual benefit. They do that by bringing together executives for presentations and group discussions about new concepts in supply chain management. Attendees, meanwhile, take back valuable ideas and concepts they can apply in their own companies.
Businesspeople have no tolerance for activities that do not add value. As a result, companies look at these events not as a charitable cause but as an activity from which they expect to receive a measurable return on their investment. Therefore, the value proposition becomes very important for the survival of these forums.
A value proposition for industry/academic forums may include:
When I was at Whirlpool, the company decided to join the supply chain forums at the University of Tennessee. We realized a significant return on that investment of time and money. Every time I returned from a meeting, I had a list of new ideas and things to do. Some of these led to major business benefits for Whirlpool. For example, one concept I learned about at a forum allowed the company to make a documented reduction of $39 million in inventory. It only takes one idea like that to yield a continuing return on a company's investment.
Companies sometimes ask a university's logistics and supply chain faculty to tackle specific projects because of the faculty's expertise in a particular area. These and other consulting assignments, which are commissioned, are sometimes referred to as sponsored projects.
One example of a sponsored project is a supply chain audit, which involves an in-depth analysis of a company's supply chain and specific recommendations for improvement. This type of project is quite common; over the past 18 months, for instance, University of Tennessee faculty members have done supply chain audits for eight major companies. These audits allow the sponsors to benefit from the faculty's knowledge of best practices; at the same time, they help the faculty stay close to the issues faced by industry today.
In general, universities work with companies on a wide range of problems in the supply chain area. Faculty can help the business community address such questions as:
Projects like these clearly demonstrate that universities are partnering with industry on the critical issues facing supply chain professionals today. All of this work, moreover, helps keep university research relevant. At Tennessee, for example, a research team currently is analyzing the results of the supply chain audits mentioned earlier. The database the team develops will provide data for a number of published articles.
Some academic organizations use web sites to provide businesses with access to research, including complete results, summaries, and even yet-to-be published research. However, I believe that universities could do an even better job of communicating their research results to the business community.
Educating future leaders
The fundamental purpose of university business schools is to educate the business leaders of tomorrow. Advisory councils that bring together business representatives and solicit their advice on what students need to know can help universities make their product (that is, students) more valuable to industry.
This direct transfer of knowledge to students is facilitated when people with strong business résumés teach alongside the other faculty. As mentioned before, I bring 32 years of industry experience to my position on the supply chain faculty. Another example is David Ecklund, a former vice president and co-founder of Caterpillar Logistics, who also teaches in our logistics programs. The combination of experienced practitioners with leading professors and researchers makes a powerful educational package.
Although a number of fine programs annually graduate well-trained supply chain students, a shortage of supply chain talent still exists. This shortage has companies competing for talent, and we find that graduates with logistics and supply chain degrees are among the most sought-after on campus. That is one reason why it is important to increase the interaction between students and the business community through such opportunities as job fairs and receptions at industry-academic events: Doing so will help companies find the supply chain talent they need now and for the future.
In addition, companies can financially sponsor Ph.D. students' research for their dissertations and make their operations available as a research subject. When I was at Whirlpool Corporation, we sponsored several dissertations. Such collaboration becomes a true win/win situation: The university and students clearly benefit from this sponsorship, and the company gains by receiving an in-depth analysis of a critically important problem.
Why not seize the opportunity?
If there are so many ways for business and academia to collaborate and learn from each other, then why are so many supply chain practitioners failing to seize these opportunities? In my observation, it's mostly a matter of time pressures.
The business world changed quite a bit during the 32 years I was there. As the years went by, both the pace and the work intensity picked up dramatically. Now I talk with people from different companies almost every day, and I know that trend continues. They tell me they often feel overwhelmed by the number of meetings, e-mails, and voice mails they must deal with.
That's why I believe that time pressure is the primary reason more businesspeople do not take advantage of the opportunities to partner with the academic community. The financial cost of participating in university programs is modest, but it is overshadowed by the crush of other responsibilities.
The practitioners who do work with the academic community deeply believe that they must make the time to "sharpen their axes." Otherwise, it will get harder and harder to meet their companies' tough, demanding objectives. As one executive said to me, "If you always do what you always did, you'll always get what you always got." They know that the breakthrough ideas come from disengaging from the daily battle and taking the time to expose themselves to new ways of thinking. That belief becomes the essence of a university-business partnership and the foundation of a mutually beneficial experience for companies, universities, and students.
My experience suggests that universities and businesses should aggressively adopt several practices that would benefit everyone. First, senior management should insist that each member of an organization have a personal development plan. Without such a plan, their staffs' skills and knowledge will quickly become outdated. Second, universities must do a better job of reaching out and making their programs more visible to the business community. And third, universities should be mindful of the time crunch facing business executives and leverage technology and distance-learning opportunities that will help executives learn efficiently. Nothing, however, beats the value of face-to-face communication, and therefore the time a businessperson spends on campus must be extremely efficient and productive.
The business community will miss a huge opportunity if it doesn't leverage the valuable resources available in the academic sector. But if universities reach out to strengthen connections with industry and businesses embrace those opportunities, the benefit to both will be felt now and far into the future.