Experience global supply chains
Supply chain management professionals interested in SCM degree programs will find international experience-based learning opportunities in most curriculums. We explored best practices for international programs in SCM and what the next generation of SCM graduates will be experiencing.
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In our global economy, supply chain management (SCM) is necessarily international in scope, and educational programs in SCM have special and unique opportunities to leverage international experience-based learning (EBL). The international scope of business is quite evident in the US, as consumers can easily identify a broad array of international sources for the products at their local stores, including clothing, furniture and automobiles. Moreover, US businesses have international sources for many key components, including electronics and machinery. SCM educational programs prepare their graduates to help future employers by effectively managing end-to-end supply chains, distribution networks, and operations.
These programs must consider how best to educate students about the international aspects of SCM, and experience-based learning (EBL) is recognized as being a very effective educational approach by getting the students out of the classroom and directly experiencing real business situations.
With this in mind, we set out to see how SCM programs use international experiences and to identify some best practices. We did this through surveys, focus groups and interviews with students and faculty that have participated in international programs from our home school, the University of Pittsburgh, and by studying programs, and interviewing program managers when possible, at a variety of universities about their international and SCM programs, including Georgia Institute of Technology, University of Minnesota, University of Indiana – Bloomington, University of Michigan – Ann Arbor, University of South Carolina, Michigan State University, Pennsylvania State University and University of Pennsylvania.
Opportunity to be SCM-focused
We found that many schools have SCM programs and international courses that co-exist, however they are not always tightly integrated. This lack of tight integration is not surprising for several reasons, as the goals of international business courses are often broader than a single area of study, these courses may be providing some students with their very first international experience, and the time abroad is often constrained. Furthermore, the curriculums of SCM programs are jam-packed with important material, since SCM encompasses such a wide range of business topics and critical decisions, both strategic and tactical.
This breadth of material can be challenging to even fit in an international course on its own or to add as an international experience into an existing course. Despite these challenges, the opportunity to experience first-hand the international aspects of SCM is very compelling and is likely to be an important component of all SCM programs in future.
We identified several best practices that apply in most any situation, including:
- Designing the program so that faculty from the home school goes abroad with the students and leads or plays a key role to ensure the students get the most from the program.
- Connecting and networking with alumni abroad, when possible, is a great way for students to learn about the local business culture from someone with a shared perspective; finding alumni that are expats and some that are citizens of the destination country is desirable as both have valuable insights to share.
- Visiting multiple companies and learning about the SCM decision making done by staff and leadership.
- Balancing the business interactions with cultural tours to better understand the cultural context.
- Leveraging technology to enable communication with international partners and hosts, beginning as far in advance as possible. This is especially important for consulting projects with international clients.
The time available for travel abroad is a key constraint to the program design. In the case of short excursion courses, such as 10 days over a spring break period, there can be significant investment during the period prior to the excursion studying specific SCM aspects that will be explored abroad.
This approach enables the EBL to be fully leveraged over the short time. One very intriguing variation on this approach are courses that study the supply chain of a small, select group of products and then use the excursion to trace back the supply chain of these products through the domestic port of entry, and then back to international suppliers (often in China).
When the time abroad is a full (or even half) semester, the program can consist of multiple courses taken at an international destination or campus.
Best practices for semesters abroad include:
- Using the curriculum from the home university so students can be confident that the courses will equip them for success in their degree program. This is especially important for foundational prerequisite classes, which become the building blocks for more advanced classes.
- Including an internship within the local business economy that are selected for an SCM experience. Internship experiences often contribute the most to student learning, as the students can directly apply classroom learning to on-the-job problems and responsibilities .
- Including an elective course that highlights the local culture (e.g., a history or art class from that region of the world) to help ensure there is a full cultural experience and context.
Focus on SCM and Make It Real
The main message behind all the above best practices is that student learning outcomes are tied to a demonstrable, action-oriented activity.
The SCM topic selection is even more important for collegiate international programs, as these topics should be connected with and indeed repeatable in the reality of the international experience. Programs that capitalize on this method will not only have some of the most rigorous and realistic international program and study abroad experiences, but also have, thanks to the incorporated EBL, some of the most employable graduates.
About the Authors
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