June 1, 2006
thought leaders | The DC Velocity Q & A

Research and (career) development: interview with Karl Manrodt

research and (career) development: interview with Karl Manrodt

He has the degrees, the contacts and the teaching credentials. But it's his research that makes Karl Manrodt stand out from the crowd.

By Mitch Mac Donald

Three months before he was to graduate from Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa, Karl Manrodt turned on the radio. And what he heard changed his life. A reporter was interviewing a New York City cab driver who was trained as a clinical psychologist but couldn't find work in his field. That was a jolt to Manrodt, who was majoring in philosophy and psychology. He began to wonder whether he, too, faced a future driving taxis.

His early experiences in the business world only confirmed Manrodt's fears that he had somehow gotten off track. "I thought having a philosophy position within a university or within a company would be an ideal posi tion—just to be able to philosophize and help the company," he says. But reality soon set in. "I ended up in a lot of sales positions," he admits.

At that point, Manrodt changed course. He enrolled in a master's degree program at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, where he earned an M.S. in logistics. He then went on to earn a Ph.D. in logistics and trans portation at the University of Tennessee. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Today, Dr. Manrodt is an associate professor in the Department of Management, Marketing and Logistics at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, Ga., where he teaches classes in business logistics, intermodal transportation and marketing research. But Manrodt, who was recognized by DC VELOCITY as a Logistics Rainmaker in 2004, is not one of those academics who stays locked in the library. He regularly goes out into the field to conduct research. In the past few years alone, he has completed studies on lean supply chains, visibility, information technology and the supply chain, collaboration, CEO perspectives on supply chain management, and, with DC VELOCITY, three annual studies on performance metrics. He has also published scores of articles as well as two books: Customer Responsive Management: The Flexible Advantage and Keeping Score: Measuring the Business Value of Logistics in the Supply Chain, as a joint project with the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals.

Outside of school, Manrodt serves on the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals' board of directors and as a member of the College-Industry Council on Materials Handling Education, the Material Handling Industry of America and the Warehousing Education and Research Council. He is also executive director of the Flat Glass Logistics Council, a group organized to support safety guidelines for the movement and storage of glass.

Manrodt spoke recently with DC VELOCITY Editorial Director Mitch Mac Donald about how he goes about preparing students for a career in logistics (lesson 1: forget the 40-hour work week), where many schools go wrong in undergraduate logistics education, and why we may never be able to agree on the definition of supply chain management.

Q: Many of your fellow University of Tennessee graduA ates have gone on to corporate jobs at companies like 3M, Lowe's and Dell, but you chose another path. How did you end up teaching?

A: I graduated from the University of Tennessee in December 1993, in the midst of a very tight job market. I was fortunate in that the newly appointed department chair wanted to start a research office (the University of Tennessee's Office of Corporate Partnerships). The goal was to do funded research with companies to bring funding into the university, but also to give our MBA students more experiences. I ended up working in that office for seven years. I helped start up the operation and later on I headed it. I worked with a wide variety of companies on logistics and marketing projects. It was a great experience.

That job also gave me valuable experience in building relationships between academic and practitioner professionals in the logistics field. One of the major things that college professors have to do, especially in a business related curriculum, is learn how to integrate the theory with the reality of life on the business side. If we want to remain relevant and critical in our economies, we really have to do that.

Karl Manrodt

Q: You moved on to Georgia Southern six years ago. I assume you're still involved in the same pursuits: research, corporate outreach and teaching?

A: Yes. One of the greatest things about Georgia Southern, and certainly one of the things I have appreciated the most, is the fact that many of our students are the first members of their family to attend college. Preparing them for logistics careers requires a little bit more work than it would at a typical university. I'll give you an example. Before we had our first career fair, I asked my students what kinds of questions they were going to ask. One student raised his hand and said: "I'm going to ask if they have benefits." He was genuinely puzzled when I advised him not to ask that question. We had to explain to him that 100 percent of the companies represented at our career fairs offer benefits and you don't have to ask about that.

It's very exciting at graduation when you meet mom and dad for the first time and they say "We've heard so much about you; we've heard so much about the other faculty members" and you really come to see how you are changing lives. That's been incredibly gratifying.

Q: What skills or traits serve you best when you go to work each day?

A: Well, I think there are two. The first one is work ethic. My students don't believe me when I tell them this, but I'm not really that smart. What I can do, however, is work harder than a lot of other people I know.

It's impossible to overstate the importance of a strong work ethic in today's business environment, and I want to prepare my students for the reality of a working life. One of the things I try to get across to them is that we don't work nine to five anymore. No one works nine to five. If you really want to succeed in life, you are going to be "on" a lot of the time. That means you've got to understand how to balance your life and your work. That is really, really tough. But it's also, I think, one of the key things that has helped me get where I am today. It's not all ability; a big part of it is a willingness to go that extra mile.

Q: You mean to tell me hard work pays off? What a concept! What's the other skill you rely on?

A: Time management. I meet with several of my students weekly to talk about time management and their schedules. I have them write down exactly what they're working on every single hour for a 40-hour work week—what they're doing, what they're going to study, what classes they have to attend. I'm trying to get them to a point where they really understand how to schedule their time and energy to be more successful.

Q: What do you do to prepare your students specifically for a career in logistics?

A: Number one, you have to teach them that their life is going to be one of continual change. You must instill in them the idea that they will always be learning. If they want to get ahead, they are really going to have to continually learn and focus in on that as much as they possibly can.

The second thing, obviously, is giving them a solid education in logistics and transportation along with an understanding of what supply chain management is all about. That's really critical because a lot of our colleagues, especially on the undergraduate side, have focused back in on teaching all about supply chains. There is nothing wrong with that, but it is very theoretical. Applying that may not necessarily be what they do on their first job. The recruiters who come to our campus—a lot of motor carriers, transportation service companies, and third-party logistics service providers—really want them to have a pretty solid knowledge of those two areas: logistics and transportation. That is the information we're trying to give them. But we also want them to have at least a basic understanding of the supply chain so that if later on, they enroll in a master's program, it is not a foreign topic.

Q: So, you want them to have both a strategic and a tactical background educationally?

A: Precisely. I want my students to be able to walk out of our classrooms and into their employer's office and be able to provide value.

Q: Let's switch gears to the business side. What do you see as the biggest challenges facing the logistics and supply chain management profession?

A: As simple as it sounds, I think our number one challenge will be to agree on a common definition of supply chain management. It's a hurdle that I'm not convinced we, as a group, will ever clear.

Q: You don't think we will ever reach agreement on that point?

A: Quite honestly, I think it's that big an issue. How long have we debated this? A decade, at least. Yet not long ago, when we surveyed a group of academics, consultants, and leading practitioners and asked them to define supply chain management, we got no consistent response. If I were to go out in the market today and do the exact same thing, I'm confident the results would be the same. I think everybody has a sense of what it is, but the agreement really isn't there.

And that's a problem. If those of us who live and breathe logistics and supply chain have a hard time defining it, how can we expect someone in, say, finance to get it? That's where the issue lies. Consider what happens when a CFO goes to a meeting and tries to discuss supply chain matters with other CFOs. That CFO probably has a very specific idea of what the supply chain is, but chances are, the CFO sitting next to him or her has a completely different idea. It's hard for them to find a common point of reference.

Q: How do we go about getting everyone on the same page?

A: Maybe we don't. Maybe we just focus on understanding that a supply chain is a big, hairy monster that requires us to integrate processes across multiple organizations. Maybe we just say, "It is a sort of umbrella that encompasses almost every aspect of your operations." From there, we can at least move on to specific expectations of what a supply chain needs to be on a company-by-company basis. And from there, we can work on those key processes that are critical to multiple organizations.

Q: What's the next biggest challenge?

A: Number two on the list would be enlightening upper level and top management as to the implications of supply chain management excellence for their organization. We need to educate them on how it can really change for the better the way they operate, and hopefully, succeed.

If we can get to the point where we can agree on a common definition of supply chain and achieve across-the-board buy-in at the boardroom level, I think life will get very, very exciting for logistics professionals.

As for the likelihood that will ever happen, there are certainly companies that are moving in that direction. It's not a large number, but there are some that really understand what the supply chain is all about. At minimum, they're moving in the right direction.

Q: What are some of the biggest changes you have observed in the typical logistics operation over the past 15 years?

A: You just can't discount the impact of technology. When you start looking at what we can do today compared to even 10 years ago, it is just absolutely astounding. Technology has changed fundamentally how we think about our business. Who would ever have thought that you could sit in a hotel room in New York City and be able to see precisely what SKUs are sitting on the shelves of warehouses all over the world? And who would have thought that we'd someday have a tool like GPS that would let us track a shipment in real time as the truck hurtles down the highway?

Q: What about the flip side? Despite all the new enabling technologies and so forth, would you agree that the objectives of logistics management have largely remained the same?

A: No doubt. The goals are all the same. We are just trying to get more efficient.

Q: Do you feel that it's important for academics to carve out a niche—say, metrics or third-party services or lean operations? And what can academics contribute to the profession?

A: Yes. I think we really have to specialize for the simple reason that you can't know everything. Given how rapidly things are changing, just trying to keep up has become incredibly difficult.

When I meet with a group of executives, one of the things I like to ask them is how they stay up to date. You have so many ways to gather information that you never had before. How do you keep up with your e-mail? How do you keep up with current reading like DC VELOCITY? How do you read it all, assimilate it, and move forward? I don't think anybody can do that, so I think a niche is very beneficial for an academic.

As for what value academics bring to the profession, we're the only ones who have the luxury of time to reflect on the macro issues and their long-term implications. Many times, deadline pressures and the daily demands of the workplace prevent practitioners from looking out more than a week or two. An academic ought to be able to step out of that and be able to see this much broader picture and try to get a sense of where things are going.

Q: You're helping the people who are stuck in the "I have no time to think today; I'm too busy doing my job" trap.

A: Ideally, that's what we can bring to the relationship. The sad news is that academics are starting to find themselves just as busy as the practitioners. Keeping up is just incredibly difficult. Once again, the answer may lie in specialization. We can only do so many things.

About the Author

Mitch Mac Donald
Group Editorial Director
Mitch Mac Donald has more than 30 years of experience in both the newspaper and magazine businesses. He has covered the logistics and supply chain fields since 1988. Twice named one of the Top 10 Business Journalists in the U.S., he has served in a multitude of editorial and publishing roles. The leading force behind the launch of Supply Chain Management Review, he was that brand's founding publisher and editorial director from 1997 to 2000. Additionally, he has served as news editor, chief editor, publisher and editorial director of Logistics Management, as well as publisher of Modern Materials Handling. Mitch is also the president and CEO of Agile Business Media, LLC, the parent company of DC VELOCITY and CSCMP's Supply Chain Quarterly.

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