The University of Rhode Island’s supply chain management department is teaching students how to improve communities through their work, in both business and nonprofit settings.
Supply chain management is the management of the flow of goods, from raw materials to finalized products, as well as the organization of people and activities in a business. Many nonprofit organizations and corporations rely on supply chain management in order to distribute goods in times of crisis. It is also offered as a major in the College of Business at URI.
Professor Koray Özpolat has focused his research on humanitarian logistics, which helps move materials for people in need. Özpolat has an engineering background and was working as a systems analyst for the United Nations when he discovered humanitarian management. After seeing the U.N. help refugees in Jordan, Özpolat found his true passion in using supply chain management to help others.
“That’s how I got to know about the world of management, logistics and supply chain in an international organization,” Özpolat said. “And that’s where I also fell in love with disaster relief, seeing the impact of the U.N. agency on generations of refugees in a dense region.”
Özpolat went on to pursue a doctorate in supply chain management, and now researches logistics for concepts like disaster and refugee relief. Özpolat has also helped create public service announcements, as well as ethical decision support tools for businesses and the public.
Humanitarian business and logistics has gained wider traction in recent years. The World Economic Forum in Switzerland focused on moving from shareholder capitalism, a business focused on pleasing shareowners, to a system in which businesses focus on creating long-term good for humanity through their services. This idea is known as stakeholder capitalism.
“The purpose of businesses was viewed as creating shareholder value, more profits to the shareholders,” Özpolat said. “But businesses have bigger responsibilities to society as well. And the more recent trend is that [business is] more than satisfying shareholders. We have bigger responsibilities to society [and] the communities we operate in and to our employees, so it’s a very timely topic. So as a business school, we are training our future business leaders to be humanitarians.”
A major principle in ethical business and humanitarian logistics is the “triple-bottom line.” This is a philosophy that suggests that businesses have loyalties to their communities and environment as well as profit. Özpolat considers this in his research and casework.
“At the end of the day, we all work somewhere, we need to make money, we want to live comfortable lives,” Özpolat said. “But I spend my day actually making a difference in the lives of those less fortunate. I feel good when I go to bed, put my head on the pillow, I sleep faster. I feel good that I did something good. This relates to really giving back to society. It’s not necessarily a religious thing but it’s a human thing.”
Although businesses giving back is a growing need, other factors can conflict. Leo Hong, a supply chain management graduate student studying under Özpolat, is currently examining how globalization affects aid from developed nations to developing countries.
“Based on literature reviews we have done in the past few years, we actually notice that there are significant problems relating to the cultural gaps between recipients and beneficiaries [of relief],” Hong said. “So we found that this leads to a trust problem. And because of these issues we also believe that there are transaction costs when you do the business in a different country, when it comes to dealing with cultural aspects. So, if there is a huge cultural difference when an agency works in a beneficiary country, the language barriers and all sorts of things can cause problems in trust.”
Mehmet Gökhan Yalcin, who is also a supply chain management professor, has also researched humanitarian logistics, but his framework is more theoretical. Yalcin explained that when disaster strikes, supply chains must be alert and aware of injustice, have access to data, make quick decisions, avoid multitasking and act with swiftness and flexibility
Yalcin also explained that businesses, especially supply chains, should pay more attention to economic sustainability.
“Unfortunately, we seem to miss the sort of more overall look on sustainability, more sort of coming from the theory the conceptual, take a step back and look at everything with a supply chain perspective,” Yalcin said. “Everything is interconnected to one another, especially these days. We are witnessing that [with] the coronavirus case I think we’re talking about supply networks, maybe supply chains influencing one another, interconnected.”