LOGISTICS SCHOOL DAYS

LOGISTICS SCHOOL DAYS

More and more logistics people are going back to school these days in a trend that's good for them, their employers and their customers and is a welcome sign of the business community's recognition of the value of their role.

As a front-page article in this newspaper explained last Thursday, this isn't a paper chase, a quest for academic credentials and bragging rights. It's not about acing exams or being first in the class or - though a few programs do offer certificates - earning a sheepskin to hang on the wall.No, this is about logistics, pure and simple: its ins and outs, its latest developments and how it meshes with the other factors in the modern business-management equation, like information technology, finance, marketing and operations. In a word, the trend is about professionalism in logistics.

Logistics programs are not a tightly defined, highly centralized activity, and there is no firm count of them. Those who teach and take them, however, agree the number is increasing. The programs are offered by a variety of institutions and groups. The Council of Logistics Management - a proponent of professional education going back to the days before 1980 when it was known as the National Council of Physical Distribution Management - says 39 colleges and universities currently offer such courses. They range from prestige powerhouses like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to transportation specialists like the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy to a variety of state and private institutes of higher education. And the council's figure doesn't include community colleges.

Most programs fall into the category of what's known as continuing education or professional studies. They last a few days to a week, offering concentrated doses of practical learning. Students come from both the carrier and the shipper sides of the transportation aisle. Generally they are mid- to senior-level personnel, though courses are available for newcomers and lower-level workers. Faculty may include both academic types and hands-on specialists.

The subject matter varies. Michigan State University's objectives include helping companies make the transition from traditional transportation approaches to managing logistics as an integrated process. Ohio State University's Executive Education Programs in Logistics offer seminars in such areas as logistics strategies that provide a competitive advantage; selecting and working with a third-party logistics provider; and measuring logistics performance. Courses at Georgia Tech's Logistics Institute include global logistics and supply-chain information systems. Hot industry topics like cost reduction and information technology get significant attention, and are likely to get even more.

The chief executive of a less-than-truckload carrier offered an assessment of a program at the University of Tennessee's Center for Executive Education that underlines why the demand for such education is growing.

''Before I went to Tennessee, we were losing business to other companies that had come at customers from a different format than what we were using,'' he told JOC writer Tom Kaser. ''They were using inventory reduction, re-engineering, changing the distribution process, and we were not. The University of Tennessee faculty got us to looking at our business completely.''

But as they sharpen logistics executives' skills, these programs also make a clear statement about the position of logistics in the greater scheme of things today.

The process of moving goods has always been vital to American business and industry. But traditionally it was usually part of the overall background. Transportation and distribution were seen as costs of doing business, as mundane, ho-hum activities not important enough to merit serious attention from the top level.

Over the last two decades, that picture has been transformed. Factors like technological advances, deregulation, unremitting competition and a relentless focus on costs have combined to enable, encourage and enforce change. Logistics is now seen as what it is: a critical part of the process, a factor that's important to competitive ability, cost and service. And logistics people are getting the credit - and the responsibility - for making it happen.

Most modern Americans tend to take the logistics process for granted. Top business executives no longer share that view. They're wisely giving logistics the attention it deserves. That puts more pressure on logistics executives to perform well and efficiently - and they're responding by seeking more education. It's a continuing process of improvement that will benefit everyone concerned.