Although he's now ensconced in academia, J. Paul Dittmann has no interest in ivory towers. Instead, the former Whirlpool Corp. supply chain VP prefers to stay grounded in the business arena, even as he becomes more involved in academic programs.
Dittmann's real-world experience makes him ideally suited for his responsibilities in the Department of Marketing and Logistics at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. As director of corporate partnerships, he oversees town-gown collaborations with businesses that want to improve their performance by conducting supply chain assessments. And as managing director of the department's Integrated Value Chain Forums, he directs semiannual "think tank" events involving more than 50 companies. But Dittmann isn't all about business; he also lectures on logistics and supply chain topics to undergraduate and grad students as well as to attendees of UT's executive education programs.
Dittmann only recently entered into this marriage of mortarboard and business suit. For 32 years, he worked for Whirlpool Corp., where his career path touched on most aspects of supply chain management. Among the titles he held at the appliance maker were vice president, supply chain strategy and systems; vice president, global supply chain systems; vice president, logistics; director, manufacturing technology; corporate director, manufacturing planning; corporate director, strategic planning; director, logistics; and director, marketing services. With credentials like that, it's easy to see why companies of all stripes have benefited from Dittmann's involvement in supply chain audits and educational programs at UT.
In Dittmann's view, supply chain education should be a two-way street. In today's fast-changing global business environment, he believes, academics and practitioners must keep each other current by matching real-world needs with cutting-edge research.
DC VELOCITY Group Editorial Director Mitch Mac Donald recently spoke to Dittmann about the interplay of business and academia, and why it's important to those both on and off campus.
Q: You had a successful three-decade career in the private sector. Could you tell us a little bit about that and how you found yourself migrating to an academic role?
A: Basically, I spent 32 years in industry. All of that was with the Whirlpool Corp., running logistics, supply chain, and manufacturing operations. It was a long career with one company, but there was an unbelievably wide range of interaction there.
After 32 years, I wanted to do something different. I was in a position where I could do whatever I wanted to do, and I decided that it was time to try something new. I am loving every day of it.
But I wanted to stay involved in business organizations because it had been so rewarding. Some people talk about giving back, and I think there's something to that. Those of us who spent a lot of time in the business world have something to say to students.
Q: Could you describe for us what you do at the University of Tennessee?
A: I manage two business forums: the Supply Chain Strategy and Management Forum and the Sales Forecasting Management Forum. The supply chain forum has 35 sponsoring companies that meet on campus for a couple of days twice a year—generally in April and November—to really talk about the leading issues of supply chain and integrative management. The other program, the sales forecasting forum, really gets into the heart of supply and demand integration. We have 20 or so sponsoring companies for that program.
My role as director of corporate partnerships comes into play when companies come to UT to take advantage of a highly ranked logistics program. Oftentimes, companies come to us with questions with respect to the partnerships they want to establish. Sometimes it evolves into supply chain consulting.
When it does, I am at their disposal as well. We have done supply chain assessments in a wide range of companies. And I also do some teaching.
Q: How has your experience as a supply chain executive influenced the approach you take in directing those programs?
A: Having been in the same seat as industry people, facing the pressures they deal with every day, I understand that they don't have tolerance for anything that doesn't add value. When they pay the sponsor fee, they don't look at it as a contribution—they're looking for a return on their investment.
Knowing what challenges business people are facing helps you design a program with a value proposition that responds best to what their needs are. And there is mutual benefit. We help them, of course, but they help us as well. Just from their being here we have a better understanding of what their needs are.
Q: Are there particular concerns that companies want you to address in these forums?
A: In our Sales Forecasting Management Forum, a huge issue is how best to implement sales and operations planning, or S&OP. It's cross-functional, and companies find it difficult. At nearly every company where we do [supply chain] audits, we find the functional silo problem. That is a fundamental problem in business: How do we manage that horizontal process when we're all organized vertically? Certainly, forecasting approaches, accuracy, metrics, and all those things are still on the agenda, but it's morphing into "How is the forecast going to be used?"
In the Supply Chain Strategy and Management Forum, there's concern about the cost of transportation. We are finding some companies now are reassessing their networks—for warehouses, in particular—because of the tremendous increase in the price of transportation. Companies are asking: Do we have our warehouses in the right place? Are they sized right? Are they in the right relationship to our source of supply and to our customers? [People are saying,] if we can't cut rates anymore, maybe we ought to skin this cat another way.
Q: What's the value of participating in the forums and the corporate partnership programs?
A: We aim to put on very relevant programs. Before each forum, we let sponsors set the agenda. Once we determine what the hot topics are, we recruit the best speakers from academia and business. That's what keeps the relationship so tight: We're designing forums to respond to specific needs that have been expressed. We look at sponsors as our customers, and they come away with ideas they can implement and that will help them save money.
Other benefits are that they have closer associations with the faculty, including access to research before it is published. That helps them stay current. Another big reason to participate is that when they're on campus, they have plenty of opportunities to interface with undergrads and MBAs. Many are competing for the very best logistics graduates, and I think it assists in their recruiting. Nothing is more important than building a talent base for the future.
Q: Is there enough new talent coming into the system to support the logistics and supply chain management needs of business?
A: Probably not, given the tremendous needs of business. Having said that, though, I think the opportunity to hire young, qualified people for their first positions in supply chain management is better than ever. As a matter of fact, when we work with many companies, we find that most people in logistics and supply chain have never had any real academic training in those areas. It is because programs are still relatively new. We graduate hundreds of students every year now who have a very firm, solid education in supply chain, and that is obviously going to help them. The bottom line is it's getting dramatically better, but there still is a shortage.
Q: Some academics have voiced concern about a gulf between academia and practitioners in the supply chain field. Can programs like the ones you run at UT help to bridge that gap?
A: I think there is the potential for that divide to exist between the business and the academic worlds, or for that matter, any part of society. We're all driven by performance measures, but academics have different types of performance measures than you find in business.
I've been extremely pleased at UT with the way the professors in this department look at the business community as their laboratory. As fast as the world is moving, unless you are out there interfacing with companies all the time, you will get out of date quickly. You'll also do a disservice to teaching and to your students if you don't keep up.
The mindset here is that the only way I can stay current within teaching and research is to keep up with what is happening in business. With that mindset, we can begin to bridge the gulf that might inherently exist out there. Still, we may not be typical of all universities. It takes a certain mindset from the administration and the leadership to realize that the university needs the business community for more than just money. We need them to help us make teaching and research relevant.
Q: How did you first get involved with UT's forums?
A: When I was at Whirlpool, I used to have a nagging concern that something we didn't know about was happening out there that would put us at a disadvantage. So I joined the supply chain forum—that's how I ended up where I am now. I wanted to make sure we weren't missing something or any new ideas that were emerging at other companies. By doing that, I'd always bring home two or three or four things. Some were small, but some were pretty big and helped us save lots of money.
Because of that experience, I do see it from the industry side. People are moving at such a fast pace! When do you ever have time to stop and get off the treadmill? There's no time to sharpen your ax, so to speak. But you have to at least do some executive education, go off to CSCMP's annual conference, or spend a couple of days on campus in a program like ours. You have to do that a couple of times a year, or the world will leave you behind pretty fast.
Q: Any closing thoughts?
A: I think one thing would be to urge people to take advantage of the professional development and educational opportunities available to them. That might seem obvious, but when we do supply chain assessments, I'm always amazed that so many companies do not have professional development programs in place. There ought to be a professional development plan for every person, and they ought to be held accountable for meeting those objectives. There are many opportunities for getting that education, and people need to take advantage of them.
When I think back to when I started in the industry over 30 years ago, there are so many things that were totally different from today. Unless you follow, the world leaves you behind very, very quickly. I've seen business executives retire, and within a couple of years, you could tell just by the way they talked that they never kept up.
A lifelong program of professional development and education is most important. In fact, I tell the students I teach that their career should be a lifelong learning exercise.