This UVA Darden Professor Isn’t Teaching Your Parents’ Operations Class
By Dave Hendrick
University of Virginia Darden School of Business Professor Doug Thomas suggests we forget our preconceptions about studying operations. Yes, students in 2018 still learn about how to eke additional efficiencies out of the enterprise, but in an era where technology-driven disruption has upended business models and yesterday’s car company is today’s “transportation solutions” provider, the operations field is richer, more dynamic and arguably more critical to venture success than ever before.
Thomas came to Darden ahead of the 2017–18 academic year after stints at INSEAD, the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business and, most recently, Penn State’s Smeal College of Business. He has built his academic and professional career around the global supply chain — the steps and processes involved in producing and distributing a product.
“I build mathematical models for managing production and distribution and optimizing inventory and production,” said Thomas, an engineer by training initially drawn to the field by what he described as a lifelong interest in puzzles. He also entered something of the family business, as Thomas’ father is a renowned operations management professor and current dean of the Johnson College of Business.
But if the draw was initially how disparate global pieces might all fit together, the age of consumer-demanded transparency has added new layers to the work.
“We are continuing to care a lot more about where the products we have come from — the provenance or the product integrity of the thing I might be putting in my body or wearing,” Thomas said. “People care about the environmental integrity of what happened to get it to them, and they care about the social impact of the workers involved.”
Concurrent with consumer demands, new technologies like blockchain are providing even more information about the components and subcomponents that go into products, opening up still more avenues of study in the field.
“If we start having all the visibility in all of the data throughout the chain, we can apply new analytics for approaches in efficiency.” Thomas said. “So my heart starts out with my history of wanting all of the information about all of the stuff flowing around, and I want to figure out neat ways to optimize that. I still love that stuff, but I drift into the questions that are important to humanity. With all the global sourcing, are we doing the right thing in markets of labor, or where we are extracting rare earth minerals?”
Thomas is versed in the practical world as well as the academic because he keeps one foot in it.
The chief scientist of the supply chain analytics and software provider Plan2Execute, Thomas said his work with the company informs his research and teaching at Darden, and vice-versa.
“The encouragement of engaging with the practicing manager at Darden makes this an ideal fit for me,” Thomas said. “I’ve started to partner with some of our corporate partners here to do some field-based cases, and I still do active research projects with companies, so that engagement all fits together for me in terms of teaching and research and working on commercial software.”
Or, as Darden Professor Elliott Weiss put it: “Doug is a great addition to Darden because his audience is not academia or practice. His audience is academia and practice.”
At Darden, Thomas has been working with Weiss to update the First Year core “Operations Management” course, bringing in new cases and business models to reflect the changing landscape.
“As with any First Year course, there is foundational material, and we’re going to teach lean and inventory management and process analysis. Darden has done that well for a long time,” Thomas said. “I like to connect how the principals and the foundation and the things that we teach affect the business model.”
Thomas, who will also lead Darden Executive Education’s The Executive Program this summer, said he is particularly intrigued by the new business models appearing at the intersection of operations, marketing and the customer experience.
How does a clothing subscription service like Stitch Fix or Amazon Prime Wardrobe that sends clothes to a consumer and expects a significant portion of them to be returned upend traditional demand models, for instance?
“The classical operations guy in me says I forecast demand, then I figure out the tradeoff between too much and too little inventory,” Thomas said. “Stylists making recommendations to customers that they may or may not return — that sort of flips this model. There are still inventory management issues, but they are twisted around.”
Similar disruptions can be seen in transportation, retail and food delivery, among other fields.
“When I first started out doing this, an entrepreneur would look to solve some inefficiency in the current business model,” Thomas said. “Now it’s, ‘I think I can meet this need totally differently.’”
As business models converge and dissolve, Thomas lauded the opportunities afforded within the Darden faculty, where he said the interaction and cross-culture engagement is explicitly encouraged.
“It’s easy to say the business world is interdisciplinary because, of course, it is, but it’s hard to execute interdisciplinary teaching or curriculum development,” Thomas said. “I’ve had far more interactions just in the one year I’ve been here across disciplines in the School than I ever did before.”
And while he’s taught in various MBA and Executive Education formats across the globe, the faculty-student interaction within the Darden classroom also required an adjustment in approach.
“I had good advice from Elliott and others, which boiled down to: trust the students,” said Thomas. “You just put faith in them to be prepared and to be ready to carry the conversation. It’s just a great environment to teach in.”
The University of Virginia Darden School of Business delivers the world’s best business education experience to prepare entrepreneurial, global and responsible leaders through its MBA, Ph.D. and Executive Education programs. Darden’s top-ranked faculty is renowned for teaching excellence and advances practical business knowledge through research. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.
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