Australia’s drive for more advanced manufacturers means students are widening their gaze to the global supply chain. Professor Chris Earley, dean of the University of Technology Sydney’s business school, speaks with Manufacturers’ Monthly.
A new job: a fresh outlook. On his desk at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), the new dean of the business school has introduced a toy ‘yes’ button.
It was a Christmas gift, Professor Chris Earley explains. Though a gimmick of sorts, it does hold some relevance to his philosophy.
“Business schools are often very conservative,” he said. “The default answer tends to be ‘no’ because ‘no’ is the safe answer.
“That, I suppose, is relevant to our discussion about manufacturing,” he continued. “Likewise, a lot of the problems within manufacturing have stemmed from that.”
On one hand, he is talking about the digital transformation – why advanced manufacturers are surviving, and in some cases beating, the shift to Asia.
In another, he is talking about outlook – why some manufacturers are willing to cross oceans to learn about what makes their consumers and competitors tick, and to better understand the shift of power.
“For a long time – before it became cheaper to manufacture abroad in places like China and the Philippines – the default answer was always ‘no’,” he added.
To put it bluntly, the traditionalist no longer owns that luxury. Along the ever-integrating supply chain, Earley insists the industry has reached a crossroads and needs to act, starting with the workforce’s consciousness.
“They didn’t want to do things differently because they were doing okay as it is, and while that was the case once upon a time, the problem is it won’t be in the future,” he explained.
“As you know, inertia can be an enemy and, in business schools, we can be the same sometimes,” he said. “The education system is facing its own technological disruptions, so we have to think differently too.”
He refers to the paper trade in Tasmania, a place he knows well from his earliest experiences of Australia as dean of the Tasmania School of Business and Economics.
“Tasmania used to be a very successful producer of paper pulp and wood-related products,” Earley continued. “That’s all drying up. There is that financial bottom line that creates an immediate incentive.
“The difficulty is: for the industries that have more buffer because they are either protected by government or they are protected by their sheer size, it takes longer for them to get the message that there is an urgency [for change].”
The e-commerce giant Amazon, which arrived on Australian shores last year, will play a massive part in the supply chain, Earley predicts.
While not a manufacturer, he wholeheartedly believes that the smartest organisations in Australia will use Amazon’s arrival as a “learning mechanism”, to see how a world-class supply chain organisation moves things around.
“If you are a mid-level manufacturer, you really need to be seriously adept on the supply chain,” he continued.
“The industries which tend to be more outward looking – constantly scanning the environment for ways to improve – tend to be the ones who don’t get taken by surprise as much.
“In Australia, there are firms taking on advanced manufacturing who are not going to have a problem because they are constantly looking for new ways to develop.”
Born in Pittsburg, Earley grew up across the US-Canadian border near London, Ontario, in the small municipality of Strathroy.
Unlike the trans-Atlantic, where competition for trade in the larger US and European markets forced manufacturers to revise their own outlooks as far back as last century, he says Australia has been buffered somewhat by its remoteness.
“In the Pacific Rim, Australia was the leader for a very long time, but not at the high level China is producing today,” he said.
To complement this recent shift, Earley says that the country’s students must represent a “new labour force” and one that is more globally aware.
“That’s coming from a very basic level – but, even in terms of operational issues and the issues of the supply chain, this becomes very important.
“How can I place my product into different kinds of international markets where infrastructures can vary dramatically in terms of quality and outreach?”
That’s one of the first things the business school can do, Earley says, to try to provide a workforce in Australia that has a better appreciation for what global markets can look like.
“We also need to work closely with manufacturers and we are doing that at UTS, largely in terms of technology and engineering,” he said.
“At a business school, we need to work with engineering and science to do a better job of reaching out to manufacturing firms and to provide the ‘business’ context of how to be a more productive organisation.
“That is something we are doing but not as well as we could. Professor Roy Green (Earley’s predecessor) was trying to move that forward and it is part of my job to continue that.”
As dean of the business school at the National University of Singapore, between 2004 and 2007, Earley says he has never seen a better integration of government, industry and education.
“The three work hand-in-hand on things and it is a model I think Australia should go after,” he said.
“One of the things that attracted me to the job at UTS, in particular, is the fact that the leadership of the university is very supportive and engaged with industry, to make this a first-class university that has impact.”
In January, the business school at UTS reaffirmed its commitment and partnership with the Institute for Sustainable Futures, and is considered a critical piece of the business school’s future amid combined international efforts to reduce carbon emissions.
“You only have to look at the power shortage in South Australia to see how energy – and specifically solar energy – has become a more important issue around the manufacturer,” Earley said.
“With a short-termism approach, all you are doing is forestalling the inevitable. Combining business with all those factors, around the social impact, the supply chain, and also sustainability is very important.”
However, a swell of students from STEM backgrounds globally are joining the workforce with too high expectations, according to Earley, who says he has seen first hand how “frustrated” engineers migrate to other industries.
“Part of the problem is that companies cannot afford to make things perfectly,” he continued, “but, while the engineers are so engrossed in the quality of their own expertise, they want to see the fruits of their labour in a very short timeframe.”
The solution, he offers, is not to treat “STEM for STEM sake”, but to help students go into their sectors of industry with a better grasp of the bigger picture.
“While they are good engineers, they can lose track of the strategic vision in the context of business and I think that’s where a business school can play an important role,” he added.