Many educators and researchers in supply chain management began their careers in industry. That's where Dr. Judith M. Whipple, associate professor in the Department of Supply Chain Management at Michigan State University (MSU), got her start. After working at General Motors in production, purchasing, and materials management, she went on to earn a Ph.D. in Business Administration with a minor in Logistics from MSU under the guidance of her mentor, the late Dr. Donald Bowersox. A respected researcher, Whipple has written or co-written more than 80 research papers, book chapters, case studies, and magazine articles, and has delivered more than 100 presentations at conferences and seminars. She's received numerous awards, including "best paper of the year" from the Journal of Operations Management, the International Journal of Logistics Management, and (twice) from the Journal of Business Logistics.
But Whipple is noted for more than just her research and publications; her teaching has won accolades as well. She's been recognized in the field of education, winning Michigan State's Teacher-Scholar Award and Teacher of the Year from the Supply Chain Management Association. In this interview with Managing Editor Toby Gooley, Whipple talks about her passion for teaching and the importance of collaboration between industry and academia.
Name: Dr. Judith M. Whipple
Title: Associate Professor, Department of Supply Chain Management
Organization: Broad College of Business, Michigan State University
Education: GMI (now Kettering University), Bachelor of Science in Management Systems; Doctor of Philosophy in Business Administration with a minor in Logistics, Michigan State University
Work History: General Motors Corporation (production, purchasing, and materials management); director, Food Industry Management Program, Michigan State University; assistant professor, Food Marketing and Integrated Supply Management at Western Michigan University
CSCMP Member: Since 1994
You worked at General Motors early in your career. Why did you switch from industry to academia?
My undergraduate degree is from GMI, now Kettering University. I studied logistics and started working for General Motors. When I decided to get a Ph.D., I was interested in the advanced study of logistics and purchasing, and I thought I would bring that knowledge back to my job. But the first year of my doctoral program I had the opportunity to teach, and I just loved it. I also had the opportunity to work with Don Bowersox and other faculty and doctoral students on a large-scale research project that resulted in the book World Class Logistics: The Challenge of Managing Continuous Change. Those experiences convinced me to follow a career in academics.
What kind of students are you teaching these days?
I teach only at the graduate level now, but early on in my career I taught more undergrad courses. I liked teaching undergrads because everything was so new and exciting to them. But MBA [Master of Business Administration] students are great to teach also because they're now starting to pull information from their work experiences and ask challenging questions, like why did a particular logistics strategy work for one industry but not for another?
I also teach doctoral students. That's especially satisfying because Don (Bowersox) and other faculty members who worked with me when I was a doctoral student really focused on teaching students how to be great academics, not just great doctoral students. I can offer my own doctoral students some of the same opportunities that were such great experiences for me.
We're a very close-knit group in the academic logistics/supply chain community. It's a very positive, supportive group of people who want to learn from and help each other. A lot of us have that "pay it forward" philosophy. That's not necessarily the case in some other disciplines.
What do you consider to be your most important mission as a supply chain educator?
Even though logistics and supply chain have come a long way in terms of recognition within businesses, we're still battling to get recognition in academia and as a career choice for students. So one important mission is teaching people across the university about the importance of supply chain management, and introducing prospective students to the field. Another is to help students learn about the power of logistics and understand how a company can become more successful by having a stronger supply chain network. It really is exciting to see students gain an appreciation of the complexity and challenges of supply chains. I love it when students tell me they can't go into a store now or order products online without thinking about supply chain management. They have a new understanding of the numerous steps and processes required to bring products to market, something often taken for granted.
I'm also excited about a project I'm involved in now. Michigan State is partnering with Intel, Arizona State University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on an outreach project, where we're developing supply chain-related activities for elementary and middle school classrooms. We are piloting five activities, such as a Lego car production exercise, for various grade levels, and we're excited by some of the early successes. Our goal next year is to develop more advanced materials to use in high schools. Ultimately, the outreach program will help increase awareness of supply chain management as a field of study among pre-collegiate students and spark interest in supply chain management careers.
We want the outreach materials to be open-sourced and available free for anyone to use. When the materials are finalized, they will likely be made available on the CSCMP website. We've framed the activities in a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) context because teachers are often looking for those types of materials to increase STEM literacy. Also, the activities are designed to be fun and interactive.
MSU teaches supply chain management in its business school. Why should business students know about supply chain management?
Because Michigan State is so well-known and well-established in supply chain education, about half of our MBA students are supply chain management majors, and our undergraduate enrollment is up about 20 percent. But all MBA and undergraduate business students are required to take a supply chain course. It makes sense: How can you make good business decisions without understanding supply chains? Take something like capital, which is so constrained now. How could a finance major make good capital decisions without understanding supply chain management? They have to understand how their financial decisions might impact supply chain performance, from either a cost or service standpoint.
How important is communication and collaboration between academics and practitioners?
In order to conduct relevant research, I need to be listening to and working with practitioners. That enables me to keep my research focused on issues that matter to industry professionals. That, in turn, helps me in the classroom because I can talk to students about what's really going on in industry and share best practices.
On the flip side, people in industry often don't have as much time as they would like to learn about what's going on outside their industry and at other companies. We can help by conducting managerially relevant research that offers meaningful insights managers can apply within their companies. It's important for academics and practitioners to continue to collaborate, and professional associations help to facilitate that collaboration.