The Power Of Practice-Based Learning

SCM students in class

There is an adage, “Give a man a fish, he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime.” But teaching happens in many forms. Teaching by instructing and demonstrating is helpful. However, teaching by having someone practice fishing in a massive, rushing river and coaching them along the way is an entirely different learning experience.

At Georgetown, we highlight this practice-based philosophy in our Supply Chain Analytics & Technologies (SCA&T) course. Many of our Master’s in Supply Chain Management students and alumni have shared the profound impact of this approach and this course. To advocate for a greater focus on practice-based learning, we’re sharing some of the experiences and benefits of students and companies who participated in our SCA&T course.

As background, students work with a company (either where they currently work, one they choose, or an assigned company) during the first half of the semester to better understand its supply chain forecasting, analytics, and data pain points. As the course progresses, students form groups, choose one of the group members’ companies, and flesh out an entire systems and process roadmap. The process is not easy, but instructor James Jacobe enthusiastically acts as a coach, devil’s advocate, cheerleader, and guide.

The Reality and Essential Skills Textbooks Can’t Convey

Reading, listening, and viewing instructional material all provide valuable lessons. However, in working with actual companies and their real-life situations, students realize that solutions need to be tailored, data and processes are often messy, and if they can’t align people around the needed actions, the data, recommendations, and rationale mean little.

As alum Russell Crispin noted, “While reading books and articles is incredibly valuable, working with live data and real people will always provide a more realistic view.” The students also found that non-technical skills, such as active listening, were essential to rooting out the issues. Another alum, Mahshid Daraby, summed up this benefit well: “Throughout the experience, my most significant learnings revolved around effective listening and understanding the company’s pain points and needs. This skill allowed me to tailor my recommendations precisely to address their specific challenges.” The experience also provided the students with an appreciation of taking a longer-term view. In addition to analyzing the current state, the process of building a supply chain technology roadmap “helped me to think several years ahead of time,” current student Yuping Schellhaas revealed.

While the experience of analyzing and problem-solving a real-life company’s situation sharpened their skills, working through change management was even more enlightening. Our program stresses the importance of emotional intelligence (EQ) and communication skills. The reflections shared by current student Dominic Murer underscored the value of EQ: “During the experience, we learned that organizational culture and people play a critical role in adopting technology. It is important to have effective communication and collaboration within a team and continuous training and development to utilize new systems fully.” This was echoed by alum Albertus Rowan’s learning that “[my] biggest takeaway was the difficulty in getting everyone involved (my teammates and members of the company) to be on the same page about the best path forward.”

The Strategic View of Participating Companies Creates A Win-Win

Companies have various motivations for participating. Some companies are sponsoring a student’s education, and they want to leverage those learnings. Some companies want to give back and develop the future supply chain talent pipeline. Yet others are looking for a fresh viewpoint to integrate into their planning. In at least one case, the company valued the work and recommendations enough to make dramatic shifts, including letting nonbeneficial consultants go. As Eric LaFary, executive director of Tiller’s International noted, “The opportunity to provide a real-world challenge to students looking to apply knowledge was meaningful and personally rewarding.” With all of these motivations, the common thread is that these companies harbor a strategic perspective, looking several years out versus addressing just immediate issues.

Grant Loberg, COO of Work Sharp LLC, shared the value he received by participating with his student who is also an employee: “Her projects around understanding our ERP system, every step and link in the chain from orders through procurement, and how technology can lead us forward have been refreshing and extremely motivating. We have already implemented some of the steps. ... Leveraging technology now has a firm place in our strategy map.”

The win-win was described well by repeat participant Christopher Banton, Senior Logistics Manager at Tuckernuck: “We have a close geographical presence to Georgetown University. ... Our rapid growth to become a leading e-commerce retailer over the last 10 years provides students unique insights at a successful company with a lean supply chain program. ... The students have summarized pain points perfectly and provided recommendations that support our internal roadmap.”

The Practice-Based Conundrum

Practice-based learning is not new. In business, we call these experiences “stretch assignments.” In fact, I worked for one CEO who referred to this process as building “scar tissue”; exposing talented people to challenging situations to strengthen their skills and confidence. The question remains how to encourage greater use of this practice-based approach.

Engaging with a student consultant on a project takes time, commitment, access, and receptiveness. Resource-stretched companies could deprioritize these types of activities. However, our experience demonstrates the value of practice-based learning for all parties involved. When companies prioritize this type of important activity despite the day-to-day fire drills, they reap tangible benefits for themselves and help build the needed pipeline of future supply chain leaders.

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