When we envisioned the competition, we wanted to create an environment that blended academics, industry, and a hands-on experience for students to use cutting-edge technology. We feel excited about the fact that we're introducing these students to a technology that's going to be hugely valuable and useful for them going forward, especially if they go into supply chain careers.
TCU Enhances Graduate Supply Chain Education with Industry-Driven Competition
• The Center for Supply Chain Innovation at the TCU Neeley School of Business hosts an annual real-world case competition inviting students from the top business schools nationwide to offer solutions to a company's challenge and win $30,000 in cash prizes.
• Esri sponsored the multifaceted experience in 2022, providing students with hands-on experience in its geographic information system (GIS) and inviting a case partner, American Airlines.
The COVID-19 pandemic has tested the ability of businesses across all industries to maintain resilient supply chains. Central to overcoming the challenge of ongoing disruptions is preparing a new generation of supply chain leaders to drive innovation and change that keeps pace with market demands.
That's been the goal at TCU, which has hosted an annual supply chain case competition. Each spring, the Center for Supply Chain Innovation at the Neeley School of Business invites graduate students from the top business schools nationwide to compete for $30,000 in cash prizes.
Students have 24 hours to review a real-world case, brainstorm ideas, and develop a solution to present to supply chain executives and industry thought leaders. February 2022 marked the sixth year of the competition, with students from 19 universities and 20 sponsor companies—including Esri—converging for this multifaceted learning experience.
"When we envisioned the competition, we wanted to create an environment that blended academics, industry, and a hands-on experience for students to use cutting-edge technology," says Morgan Swink, executive director of the TCU Neeley Center for Supply Chain Innovation.
Swink says the approach offers a learning experience and a networking opportunity for students to build relationships or discover industries they may not have known they had an interest in. "It is a lot to experience in a short period. It is a lot of work, but the competition is fun too," says Swink.
Contextualizing Supply Chain Challenges
At the heart of the competition is the case that students analyze. Each year, a well-known organization provides a challenging, real-world scenario. Six months before the competition, Cliff Defee, associate professor of professional practice in supply chain management at TCU Neeley, begins working with the case study provider to scope a problem. The problem shouldn't have a singular correct answer but instead inspire students to discover various solutions and use the tools that they have to find the one they think is the most comprehensive.
"From a case standpoint, we select cases that are real-life current problems an industry is working on; these aren't challenges with existing solutions for students to rehash. Rather, the cases are built so that students see several solutions presented because of the analytics aspects, and they have to strategically decide what they think is the best solution from their knowledge," says Defee.
TCU Neeley faculty aim each year to have the competition focus on a different industry and a new type of problem, highlighting the variety of challenges occurring in supply chains. BNSF Railway, Chick-fil-A, Nike, Lockheed Martin, and the National Restaurant Association have participated as case study providers in the past. In 2022, American Airlines provided the competition's first-ever aircraft maintenance challenge.
The American Airlines case study, entitled A Dilemma in Parts: Finding Operational Excellence in a Complex Environment, asked students to determine an inventory strategy for stocking repair parts for the Boeing 787 fleet at airports across the American Airlines' US network. The teams worked with data involving more than 2,600 parts, worth millions of dollars, positioned at 26 airports and maintenance locations.
Craig Henry, managing director of technical operations supply chain at American Airlines, said in a press release that he feels the competition is a great opportunity to test the airline's assumptions and explore new strategies. "Students' outside-the-box thinking may raise potential solutions that we haven't considered, and their approach to problem-solving helps us ensure we're developing this capability on our own team."
Students were given data and training by Esri staff to use ArcGIS Online and ArcGIS Business Analyst. The winning team, Iowa State University, used location intelligence data to advocate for a centralized hub solution. "ArcGIS was very effective to justify our case without having to use various Excel functions," says Nick Schiefelbein, a mechanical engineer and an Iowa State University graduate student.
For Schiefelbein, who also competed in 2021, the opportunity to return after having not placed the previous year was a highlight of his college career and an invaluable learning opportunity.
"The competition is truly a wonderful way to take the subject matter we learned and apply it in a high-stress, business-like setting," he says. "We had to relate information and our strategies in a proper, concise manner that appealed to executives, which isn't easily learned in the academic setting, and we were compensated for our achievements. The competition is really an environment that simulates the real world."
As the winning team, the four competing students from Iowa State University won the top prize of $12,000 and each received an iPad. For the university's faculty adviser, Henrik Sternberg, the win was both personally rewarding and a validation of the program's training.
"The winning students are getting positive feedback from industry leaders on a solution they confidently presented based on a data-driven decision—it shows that they are well trained and gives a confidence boost," says Sternberg.
The competition also provides an opportunity for academics to ensure their programs are keeping up with current industry needs and trends, he says. "It can be a challenge to keep education programs aligned with industry because the tools and methodologies being used are constantly developing. This event helps faculty stay current. They can get feedback from industry to benchmark how well they are preparing students for the workforce."
Empowering Future Supply Chain Leaders
In addition to the case portion of the competition, TCU Neeley staff strive to make the event a full experience for all participants. For example, faculty assemble participants' résumés into a shareable book to give to the competition's business sponsors. The competition's staff also work with business partners to offer a speaker series and networking opportunities for students.
"One of the things we try to do to set our competition apart is bringing these three groups—faculty, business partners, and students—together to lead to many different outcomes, like students finding a new career path, talent acquisition, development opportunities, research, and feedback for faculty," says Swink. "It's a win-win, with many dimensions beyond a learning experience for students."
In Swink's experience, GIS and spatial analytics are not typically taught in business schools. However, he feels that with current data, analytic trends, and rising demand for geospatial analysis, the timing is right for universities to include the technologies as part of their curriculum.
"We feel excited about the fact that we're introducing these students to a technology that's going to be hugely valuable and useful for them going forward, especially if they go into supply chain careers," says Swink. "We hope that in promoting this technology in our competition, it diffuses into business schools and becomes a part of the business curriculum in other places."
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