Dear Professor Nizar Abdelkafi, it is a pleasure to have the possibility to exchange some ideas and thoughts with you about Supply Chain Management and its ever-growing importance for companies and for curricula at universities and business schools.
Starting with an icebreaking question, I see that before joining MIP, you were head of the research unit at Fraunhofer Society in Germany and a lecturer at the University of Leipzig. What brings you here to Milan and to MIP?
There are many reasons that brought me to Milan after a long and very rich experience in Germany, in particular at the Fraunhofer Society. First, I wanted to join a world-class University. Politecnico di Milano is a highly reputed University, not only in Italy, but also in Europe and all over the world. MIP is an excellent business school with many international and executive programs. Second, I wanted to be involved in a new challenge, a new culture, while learning a new language, and also to get to know a new working environment. Third, I had been to Milan and Italy many times before moving here. So, I like the city, the people, and the way of life. Fourth, my wife loves Italy, and living in Italy had been a dream of hers that has now come true 😊.
Being Italian, I can only agree with the third and fourth points and I am quite sure that Milan and Italy will keep the promise.
Moving on to your research topic, I was quite impressed when, during the MBA path, I saw that MIP’s Supply Chain Management module is not integrated in Operations Management. Usually books tend to put “Operations Management” and “Supply Chain Management” together. Do you think that it is a good choice to teach both topics separately? And do you think that this choice has been made because of the increasing relevance of the topic?
This is a good question. It is true that some operations management textbooks include supply chain management as a chapter, but a textbook on operations management cannot cover all the specific aspects of supply chain management. Supply chain management has developed to a proper discipline with topics that overlap with many other fields, among others, product design, logistics, sustainability, risk management, and information technology. Supply chain management has introduced a new way of thinking in management practice that is integrative, going beyond the boundaries of the single company. In the meantime, it is a very well-established field. Many companies are aware of how critical supply chain management is to their success, and therefore they create dedicated departments and recruit skilled specialists in this area.
Could you tell us, according to your experience, which is the biggest challenge that supply chains are facing and which of the emerging technologies (e.g., the Internet of Things, drones, self-driving vehicles) will be really disruptive in fixing it in the coming years?
Your question has two parts. Concerning the first part, we are facing a global challenge. Climate change is a reality that we cannot deny, and nations must address this problem seriously and cooperatively. Because of climate change, natural disasters, in the near future, will occur more frequently than we used to experience. Floods, fires, etc, are the consequence, and this will cause many supply chain disruptions. Thus, one of the biggest challenges that supply chains have to face is how to deal with an ever-increasing level of disruptions, by building resilient supply chains that are able to recover fast. To cope with supply chain risks, however, we need both managerial and technological solutions.
The second question is related to disruptive technologies in supply chains. Making a prediction regarding which technologies will be disruptive is a difficult task. In my opinion, however, Artificial Intelligence (AI) coupled with Internet of Things (IoT) technologies has the potential to lead to the biggest technological disruptions in supply chains. New players will create new services that we have never thought of, ensuring a high level of visibility and real-time-management of supply chains.
One of the topics always present in every Supply Chain class is sustainability. Usually, the trade-off driver in logistics is the “Service-Cost” one. Nowadays, on the other hand, the emerging request from companies (and from final customers) is to lower the ecological footprint, such as CO2 emissions. While some activities to increase sustainability lead to a decrease in the costs (for example route optimization or the design of shorter trips), other activities will lead to an increase in costs in the short term with no certain return in the future (only, for example, the substitution of the actual fleet with an electric one and all the related costs). Do you think that we will only be seeing a “partial” innovation in the next few years, in order to remain close to the trade-off previously mentioned?
This is a big question that can hardly be answered in just a few lines. The costs and benefits of sustainability have been debated for long time, but I will not get into this now. Sure, however, supply chains cannot afford not to integrate sustainability efforts into their actions. Natural resources are not unlimited. In addition, companies must assume an increasing responsibility regarding stakeholders. Hence, supply chains will intensify their sustainability-related endeavours, although in the pandemic era we are still struggling with, economic growth will have a higher priority until companies are able to stand on their own feet again. In a nutshell, we can distinguish between two types of innovation that will reinforce sustainability in supply chains. The first is technological. Technology will generate totally new solutions and lead to completely new applications. Think, for example, of 3D printing and its impact on decreasing logistics costs or embedding electric vehicles in intermodal transportation concepts. The other type of innovation is business model focused. It is about rethinking the traditional ways of doing business, e.g., crowdfunding platforms to fund efficiency and sustainability projects.
Closing our interview, would you suggest to future students a recent book (or an article) related to Supply Chain that treats the matter insightfully and professionally? And, the last request, could you give any piece of advice to future MBA candidates especially attracted by the Supply Chain?
I suggest reading the new (ab)normal by Yossi Sheffi, a book published in 2020 that excellently illustrates how supply chains could deal effectively with the COVID-19 pandemic. For the future MBA candidates fascinated by Supply Chain management, I would like to tell them first that you are just attracted by the right topic 😊. The pandemic has demonstrated how essential and important supply chain management is to everyone. My (practical) advice for these students: first, learn the theoretical frameworks in supply chain management and understand them in depth. These will potentially give you directions to find solutions, or help you to better analyse and structure practical problems; second, complement your knowledge with examples and case studies. There are a bunch of good case studies in supply chain management that just reinforce understanding; finally, do not miss any opportunity to apply your knowledge in your companies or elsewhere. In this way, you will be highly skilled in supply chain management.
Thank you Professor for your precise and in-depth answers. I have found several starting points to go through. I really enjoyed both your lessons and this exchange of ideas and I can only encourage other students interested in the topic to benefit from your pieces of advice and to approach the study of this matter from the different perspectives you mentioned before.
About the author
| Luca Bianchi
International sales manager for a multinational logistics company and part of the young group of the Freight Leader Council, I would define myself as curious, ambitious and continuously disposed to improve. Strong supporter of cross-functional experiences, job rotation, teamwork and lifelong learning, my objective is to be constantly able to see challenges from different perspectives and to be adaptable in this ever-changing environment.