Global Supply Chain Educational Partnerships

Aug. 19, 2008
With the increase in global competition, both businesses and universities will look for partnerships to better understand, and forecast, supply chain problems.

The trend in modern supply chain management, and supply chain education, is to seek educational partnerships to improve both the company's and the university's competitive position. Intuitively, we would assume that such educational partnerships could help improve a firm's efficiency, assist in learning innovative processes, and remain current relative to front-line supply chain thinking.

For universities, the benefits of such partnerships range from an institution's ability to use partner firms as "living laboratories" and provide a platform for leading-edge research. Not to mention a gateway for the hiring of its graduates. While educational partnerships between businesses and business schools have a long history, supply chain partnerships are rather new to the scene, this due to the fact that multiple firms are often involved and supply chain thought is still in a relatively early stage of development. There are several reasons, however, why this growing trend is critical to both businesses and business schools, and increasingly the most competitive members of both have strong collaborative relationships relative to supply chain education.

As we will see, the trend is due to changes in the competitive landscape for companies and educational institutions, and can only be expected to continue for the long term.

Changes in the Educational Landscape

Recent numbers from the Graduate Management Admissions Council, or GMAC, indicate significant shifts in the way in which executives are being educated. First, in the U.S., enrollment for traditional two-year MBA programs (where many managers receive their first exposure to supply chain thought) are decreasing, while in Europe they are still increasing but at a decreasing rate. Conversely, applications to executive MBA programs, where managers can continue to work while pursuing their MBA, are increasing.

There are a number of reasons for this shift, including the fact that it is more difficult to cut two years out of your life to attend an MBA program, and the fact that full-time MBA programs are increasing being seen as commodities, with little differentiating factors between them.

Another trend in education is the call for more programs with a specific focus on supply chain education, as opposed to general management principles. The reason for this may seem obvious, in that there has been considerably greater attention given to supply chain efficiencies and effectiveness as the world markets have demanded. However, a more latent reason is that, with the exception of a few institutions worldwide, most colleges of business simply have not provided a meaningful emphasis on advanced supply chain strategies whereas the need for managers who are savvy in this area has increased exponentially.

As a result of these trends, companies worldwide have sought to establish more direct relationships with universities and, to a limited extent, other educational providers to assist in their efforts to educate their workforce in supply chain strategies. The result has been an effective way to strengthen the capabilities of already valuable managers, while at the same time develop a conduit to the most recent research and the best and brightest graduates in supply chain thought.

How Partnerships are Working

Globally, there are a numbers of examples of educational partnerships that are helping both companies and universities compete. There is no standardized format for these arrangements: each partner has a unique set of needs and resources and as a result partnerships take on a wide variety of forms and formalities.

One good example of innovative educational alliances is at my own institution, the University of Tennessee, where our Supply Chain Forum has over 35 partner firms that come together twice a year for roundtable discussions and research seminars. These types of non-traditional educational activities exemplify university learning options that address specific supply chain issues for firms, while at the same times take advantage of potential symbiotic learning activities between the firms themselves. Other companies, or even multiple firms that represent buyer and seller partnerships within the supply chain, often have long-standing relationships with colleges of business for providing "custom programs" for their employees. In this fashion, firms are better able to focus the learning experience on specific supply chain topics while at the same time expose their managers to the latest in supply chain thinking.

In speaking with companies interested in finding learning opportunities for their supply chain managers, it is clear that they want their employees to be exposed to two things: global issues and the benefits from being exposed to ideas from other managers, especially those working in overseas markets. For this reason, executive education is experiencing a new trend in global supply chain education: universities partnering with colleges of business abroad to develop new curricula in global supply chain management where managers from across the globe come together to learn and share ideas.

They understand that, particularly when it comes to supply chains, the world is not flat, and different markets have widely divergent models of supply chain success. As a result, more and more U.S. managers are coming together to study with their Asian and European counterparts, often spending time in overseas locations such as Hong Kong or Budapest in order to better learn how things work there. This sort of focus on global supply chain management reflects the aforementioned educational shift towards specialty programs in graduate programs.

As the global business landscape becomes increasingly competitive and volatile, both businesses and universities will look for partnerships to better understand, and forecast, supply chain problems. A common denominator of future gold standard firms will be educational relationships that fit the specific needs of both the company and their partner institutions of higher learning.

Matthew B. Myers, Ph.D. is the Nestle USA Professor of Marketing and the Director of the Global Business Institute for the University of Tennessee.

For over 50 years, University of Tennessee (UT) faculty have played a major role in the supply chain/logistics arena -- conducting innovative research, publishing leading-edge findings, writing industry-standard textbooks, and creating benchmarks for successful corporate supply chain management. Programming is top-ranked in Supply Chain Management Review, U.S. News & World Report, and Journal of Business Logistics. Certification is available.

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