Hunched over computers, students in a Grainger Hall computer lab gather in small groups, with heads down, intently discussing cash flow and inventory in low tones. While this classroom atmosphere is seemingly laid back, the competition under the surface is fierce. The groups have faced off with one another through a computer simulation, each team managing their own mock cereal company. They have to make smart, quick decisions; time is of the essence. During one class period, 30 “days” go by as each group aims to make the largest profit.
The course instructor, Senior Lecturer Peter Lukszys, walks around the classroom, offering advice and answering questions as the 20-somethings with furrowed brows tackle real-life business problems.
Lukszys has taught the course (Marketing 427/727: Enterprise Systems and Supply Chain Management) for the past seven years at the request of Jack Nevin and Verda Blythe — two supply chain faculty leaders within the Wisconsin School of Business. They first contacted Lukszys in 2007 after recognizing the need for students to learn Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems — business management software widely used in large companies.
Organizations often use ERP systems to integrate multiple processes, such as marketing, manufacturing, inventory, shipping, and payments.
Lukszys talks through a problem with a group of students during an ERP simulation.
“An ERP system crosses multiple areas of an organization and requires you to think about business in a connected, systemic way,” said Senior Lecturer Ann O’Brien, who covers ERP systems in her accounting course. “The technology enables this cross-functional collaboration.”
Prior to joining the school, Lukszys was working in supply chain at the healthcare company Merck implementing SAP systems (a brand of ERP software). He was excited to teach the course, but knew it had to move beyond the traditional classroom experience.
“I knew it had to be something more than just knowing. It had to be doing,” Lukszys said. “It had to be an immersive experience.”
Lukszys teamed up with fellow instructors and joined the SAP University Alliance, a group of 1,500 universities worldwide that have access to deeply discounted licenses of the software, along with training and opportunities for collaboration. After joining the alliance, all instructors at UW-Madison who use ERP systems are able to share curriculum with other faculty from across the world.
For students, courses that incorporate ERP systems give them a chance to explore the technology and gain experience that would help them once they graduated into the professional world.
“I loved how interactive the class was. I truly felt like I was learning skills directly applicable to the real world,” said Alex Sullivan, a 2013 graduate who is now working as a customer inventory analyst for Kimberly-Clark. “My experience from the ERP systems course put me ahead of the curve, and I was able to jump right into my daily work a lot faster than most of my fellow new hires.”
The time spent using real SAP systems in the classroom comes in handy for students when they begin looking for a full-time employment after graduation. Chris Snavely, a recruiter at Cargill, said he continues to be amazed by the students he meets from the Wisconsin School of Business.
“They constantly impress our leaders with their poise and ability to tackle difficult and ambiguous projects,” Snavely said.
One recent graduate from the supply chain specialization credits her work in Lukszys’ course with helping her jump right into her first post-college position.
“I certainly felt at an advantage coming into my role, having previous exposure and hands-on experience with SAP. I already knew how to navigate the system and I was familiar with several SAP transactions,” said Mallory Devine, a 2013 graduate who is a centralized materials planner for Kimberly-Clark. “Many new hires from other universities with top supply chain programs came into the company with no previous SAP experience. I felt ahead of the game.”
In Lukszys’ mind, he feels accomplished when his students leave the course with a solid understanding of how different parts of a business function together.
“For a student to be successful using an ERP system, they have to understand how a business works,” Lukszys said. “I want them to be able to get data out of an ERP system and be able to optimize it to make better business decisions once they’re working for a real company.”
Even for students who do not use ERP systems in their jobs, the lessons learned still apply.
“I work on a multifunctional team that requires basic knowledge of forecasting, pricing, and the supply network,” said Karen Sanchez, who works for Procter & Gamble
in their consumer and market knowledge area. “The course also taught me soft skills like better communicating project ideas and prioritizing business needs — two things that are critical in my current role.”