This spring, DePaul University invited alumni back to campus for a special day of learning and exploration with DePaul professors. Through Alumni University on April 18, participants had a chance to network with fellow graduates and connect with faculty members who presented mini- lectures on intriguing and relevant topics.

The subjects of the faculty presentations ranged widely and involved professors from across DePaul’s colleges and schools.

Associate Professor of Management Nezih Altay, a supply chain expert, and Associate Professor of Economics Michael Miller, a frequent media commentator on the economy, were among professors who shared their expertise at the event.

Below, the two business professors discuss the issues they explored at Alumni U.

Businesses Can Learn From Humanitarian Supply Chains

Altay’s Alumni U discussion focused on how humanitarian supply chains deliver aid in times of crisis and what business lessons corporations can learn from the structure of humanitarian chains.

“Supply chain management is the management of the movement of product and information all the way from raw material to end user,” Altay explains. Humanitarian supply chains are basically “supply chains on steroids,” he says, because everything happens with urgency after a disaster. Multiple groups—including international nongovernmental organizations, governments and military groups—need to coordinate on short notice and quickly move food, shelter, medication and water into a disaster area.

For example, the South Pacific cyclone in Vanuatu in March showed how challenging humanitarian logistics can be. The area is made up of 82 islands (65 of them inhabited) spread over 4,700 square miles, and Altay noted that communication networks were destroyed, making coordination and information gathering for needs assessment difficult. “Locating displaced people, understanding their needs, sourcing the supplies and reaching these remote islands to distribute the aid is all part of humanitarian supply chain management,” he says.

Altay’s interest in humanitarian supply chain management began in 1999 when he was getting married in Turkey and Istanbul was hit by 7.2 earthquake and 17,000 people died. “I survived, and I observed the Turkish government’s lack of response—it took them 72 hours to put together the emergency response center,” says Altay, who at the time was a PhD student studying operations management. “I started thinking that there must be a better way to make things faster … so I converted all of my attention from my dissertation topic to disaster relief.”

Altay says that one of the biggest mistakes donors make during crisis is to collect clothes, books or shoes and ship them to the affected area. Although well-meaning, “this type of help actually doesn’t help—it clogs the whole supply chain and slows down the movement of essentials like medication and emergency relief,” he says. Sometimes the best way to help is by staying away or by donating cash instead of physical goods.

Businesses can learn from the agile way humanitarian relief supply chains tend to be structured, Altay notes. “Corporate supply chains are designed to be low cost to increase the bottom line, but low-cost supply chains are notoriously slow and they’re not flexible at all,” Altay explains. “During the status quo they will work like a charm, but when you have a major disruption, most corporations don’t know how to react to that. If we can learn how humanitarian supply chains work, we can actually adapt our new knowledge into corporate supply chains.”

U.S., Europe and Asia Area Face Different Economic Pressures

During his Alumni U session, Miller discussed U.S. monetary policy and examined the effect of a Fed move to raise target short-run interest rates on trade, investment, saving and the growth of the American economy.

The current economic outlook for the United States and the rest of the world differs greatly, Miller says. “At the moment the Federal Reserve is taking actions which are different from the rest of world’s central banks because the American economy is in a different place,” he says. “In the U.S. we see that growth is expanding and we’re doing reasonably well. In Europe, there are problems with the euro, and in Greece their central bank will be keeping things steady for the next year and a half at least. In Asia, the Bank of China is concerned about growth, so they’ve been lowering interest rates and looking for stimulus.”

Miller recognizes economic conditions and trends are constantly shifting, and even the people driving policy may not know exactly which steps to take. “They are doing their best, but there’s no guarantee that they’re going to make the right decision at the right time and generate the right outcome,” he explains. “There’s a lot of uncertainty if the policies central banks will be following in fact are properly timed and if they’re in the proper direction and if they’ll have the results that they hope for. Policymakers are in territory where we’ve never been before.

Miller, who has been a speaker at Alumni U before, says it’s fun to discuss the economy at the event because he can approach the discussion differently than he does in the classroom. “In a classroom, I have to be unbiased, but in a presentation like this, I can also present my own views. That creates a good atmosphere for discussion and debate.”​ 

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