By Dr. William Oliver Hedgepeth
Program Director, Government Contracts and Acquisition at American Public University
When I was Chair of Logistics Department at the University of Alaska Anchorage, I was asked to visit Hawaii for two weeks; I was part of a brainstorming exercise into what Hawaii wanted to be known for. So, my Dean and I shipped off to Hawaii, along with Senator Ted Stevens (Alaska) and Senator Daniel Inouye (Hawaii).
We were participating in a business transition exercise with about 100 other “experts.” At the end of the week, I had learned that Hawaiian business people wanted to add a brand to their identity that was not tourist, pineapple or any number of things that seem, well, Hawaiian. I purchased five Hawaiian shirts many Alaskans wear in the summer. Ultimately, I learned two things. One was that some leaders in Hawaii wanted to be known for biomass that is, burning all that green stuff that grows all the time and product alternative energy sources. The second thing was seeing how a brainstorming session could be seen in different viewpoints, not just from the different ages of the participants or different cultures.
I returned to my campus with a renewed energy to find a way to harness this thinking into examining large or strategic logistics problems that Alaska has. Alaska does not seem to have any small problems.
I had also been working in my previous career with the Depart of Defense (DOD) with RAND. While working with RAND, I learned about a strategic concept called Assumption-Based Planning or ABP. You can download the ABP booklet from RAND and look up how ABP has been used to think about different very hard problems, such as should the U.S. go to war or not? Now that is a big topic.
I also had a Ph.D. that was less than a decade old and had used an analysis method to examine different large subjects at three different viewpoints. One was from what I called the 30,000 foot view, one from the 10,000 foot view and one from a one-foot view. I came across this by crisscrossing the U.S. too many times each week during my DOD days. What you saw from your window at 30,000 foot of a city was much different as approached the city at 10,000 feet, and way much different when we landed.
Creating the Game
What I devised was a business transitions war-game. The problems attacked were real. One problem was how to save an Alaskan village about to be swept into the sea from a raging ice storm, basically a hurricane in winter with large house-sized chunks of ice slamming into the shore instead of water as you get from Atlantic storms. Another was how to redefine the seafood harvesting market of Alaska’s fishermen. From the military side, it was whether or not to make a deal with the Taliban instead of shooting at them. None of these are small problems. The answers are at a strategic level.
The structure of how to conduct a business transition war-game is to form three groups of students; only graduate students will do. Executive-level graduate students are the ideal candidates. Each group is composed of seven to eight students. Each group is given a separate user guide. These user guides have a clear and detailed definition of the problem to solve but from three perspectives. One user group is working at the 30,000 foot view of the problem. A second user group covers aspects of the problem from a 10,000 foot perspective. And the third group is on the ground, up close, in the ice waves and village houses and villagers themselves; this is the one-foot view.
A key to the success is that all three groups are to work separately. One group is not to discuss what facts they use or assumptions they make with another group. If all three groups worked together, then only one solution would form. Each of these three teams is in competition with each other. Their grade is based on originality of critical thinking, being able to support each core assumption with facts; no guessing is allowed. A guess is not an assumption. This exercise takes 15 weeks or one full semester to complete.
Each group presents their analysis in document form and in a PowerPoint slideshow. Each presentation usually lasts one to two hours.
How to Score the Results
The judge of the final presentation is the audience. The audience is comprised of other students and members of government or private companies who have an interest in the possible solutions. In some cases, the students went to a printer and had their final report hardbound. It looks like the black book of a Ph.D. or master’s degree dissertation. The grade for the final report is the faculty member, their professor. So, half the grade of each team member is the final report and half comes from the audience grade from the public presentation.
Does the war game work? You bet. The Director of Alaska’s Homeland Security office used the students briefing to present their solution to the ice storm problem. This director’s presentation had other agencies in the room ready to present their analysis and suggestions. One major intelligence agency was so impressed that they scraped their presentation and wanted to know how the Alaska Homeland Security office had come to their conclusions. Yeah. This process works.
Incorporation Into the Online Classroom
Now, the trick is how to make this work in an online academic world, one where the students are in an MBA program or graduate or executive graduate program in logistics or other discipline where strategic decision making is part of the education, the training. This current version takes 15 weeks to complete. So, this timeframe might make it a candidate for some comprehensive exam for a cohort of students. Taking this war game to the 8-week academic level is a bit of a challenge for a strategic problem. But, it might work. A more detailed description can be found in my book, RFID Metrics.
My question to you is how do we make such a robust analytical model work online and do so in 8 weeks? It can be done. I am working with an adjunct professor now who has repeated this process at a college in Texas for Boeing to help solve some very large problems. The answer may lie in the range and definition of the problem to be presented and the nature of the student audience.
Reference: Hedgepeth, W. O. (2007). RFID Metrics: Decision Making Tools for Today’s Supply Chains. CRC Press.
About the Author
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth is the program director for Government Contracts and Acquisition at American Public University (APU). He is the former program director of Reverse Logistics Management and Transportation and Logistics Management. Prior to joining APU, Dr. Hedgepeth was a tenured associate professor of Logistics and chair of the Logistics Department at the University of Alaska Anchorage. His book, RFID Metrics, was published in 2007 by CRC Press and is in revision.