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Erdman Center Marks 20 Years of Changing With the Times

by Jane Burns Wednesday, March 30, 2016

For 20 years, Urban Wemmerlöv got a lot of wedding invitations and hosted a lot of parties. As founding executive director of the Erdman Center for Operations and Technology Management at the Wisconsin School of Business, Wemmerlöv helped create a community that went outside the boundaries of the classroom and helped forge strong personal connections with and among students.

Going beyond boundaries is in keeping with the Center itself, born two decades ago from a desire to improve the productivity of the U.S. manufacturing industry through cross-functional organizational practices. In that time, the Center has graduated 141 MBA students who have gone on to become leaders in a variety of industries and organizations.

Urban Wemmerlov

Urban Wemmerlöv, Kress Family Professor of Productivity and Quality at the Wisconsin School of Business.

“The Center has really been a great success story,” says Dan Erdman, son of Marshall and Joyce Erdman, for whom the Center is named.

This year marks a major transition: Wemmerlöv, the Center’s founder and the Kress Family Professor of Productivity and Quality, stepped down from his role as executive director of the Erdman Center at the end of 2015. He passed the baton to Enno Siemsen, Procter & Gamble Bascom Professor of Operations and Information Management, who took over as executive director on January 1.

Transitions are nothing new to the Erdman Center. When planning began in 1992, the degree it would offer was in “Manufacturing and Technology Management,” and when business practices shifted from manufacturing to service, it became “Operations and Technology Management” in 2004. Graduates once earned an M.S., now they earn MBAs.

“The meaning of ‘technology’ has become almost synonymous with information technology,” Wemmerlöv says. “Most people don’t even think of product technology any more, even if that was the intentional use of the word, they think information technology. That is fitting since we get a lot of applicants with IT background.”

A plan to help U.S. manufacturing

Information technology wasn’t the original focus of the Center. The seed of the idea grew from a radio lecture heard by Marshall and Joyce Erdman. The program was based on a book, Made in America, about American manufacturing and how it could better compete in a changing world economy. Marshall was founder of Madison-based Erdman & Associates, an architectural and construction firm, and a furniture manufacturing company called Techline. Joyce was a former president of the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents, a strong supporter of the Wisconsin School of Business, and active in the Madison community. A chance meeting between Marshall Erdman and Andrew Policano, then-dean of the Wisconsin School of Business, set the idea for the Center in motion.

Marshall Erdman

Marshall Erdman (left) with Urban Wemmerlöv at Erdman's company, Techline, in 1993.

“One of the key ideas that Marshall Erdman picked up on was this concept of boundary-less managers, they weren’t focused on one narrow area but had a broad-based business perspective,” Wemmerlöv says. “This is really the hallmark of this degree. How do you make engineers or scientists, who are considered technical people, talk to business managers? How do you make them talk to each other? Well, you have to put them together and teach them together.”

Joyce Erdman died in 1992 and Marshall endowed the Center in her name. Wemmerlöv, who also had been working on creating cross-educational opportunities for engineering students at UW-Madison, was officially named the Center’s director in 1994 after engaging in two years of planning. Marshall Erdman died in September 1995, three months before the Center graduated its first two students.

Colleagues who feel like family

The Center continues to support students seeking an MBA with a specialization in operations and technology management, which provides them with decision-making skills and comprehensive knowledge of planning, designing, implementing, managing, evaluating and improving the processes, resources, and information systems an organization uses to create and deliver products and services. Graduates can specialize in health care management, entrepreneurial management, technology product management, and production systems management.

Student Life

"Urban (Wemmerlöv) challenged us to do bigger, better things that would make the Erdman Center proud," says Hema Narasimhan (MBA '15).

But what the Center offers goes well beyond the classroom. Workshops, executive-led roundtables, and field trips connect students to executives and consultants to learn perspectives and practices from the front lines.

Hema Narasimhan (MBA ’15) says she appreciated the weekly one-on-one meetings with former staff director Nicole Jennings, and even used Jennings' office for Skype interviews with companies.

 “She would put up a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign outside the door to prevent interruptions during the interview,” says Narasimhan, now a product manager at Intuit in California.

The Center also provides networking opportunities that help students forge strong bonds.

“I think it’s the relationships that I developed while at the Center that got me my first job,” says Mike Johnstone (M.S. ’99), an Erdman alumnus and member of its Executive Advisory Board.  “The Erdman Center taught me to operate at different levels. As a student, you’re rubbing elbows with all sorts of senior levels of people and that’s an important skill to have.”

Students get those opportunities when the board meets, says Johnstone, director of supply chain management at Madison Gas and Electric.

“Urban has done a great job with the board meetings and when they happen it’s not just a bunch of executive men and women who get in a room and shut the door,” he says. “Students are there and they’re integral to every single meeting.”

The atmosphere Wemmerlöv created for the Center has also been a draw, alums say.

“When I joined the Wisconsin MBA Program, every interaction with an Erdman Center staff or faculty member was loaded with a rich history of operating as a small, close-knit family,” Narasimhan says. “Urban always spiked our confidence by stating that we were ‘above average’ and challenged us to do bigger, better things that would make the Erdman Center proud.”

Erdman family still involved

The family spirit extends to the Erdmans. Marshall and Joyce Erdman’s sons Dan and Tim live in Madison and stay in touch with the Center, often attending board meetings or holiday parties and meeting students and alumni, and their out-of-town siblings Deborah and Rusty stop by on occasion.  All have generously contributed to the Center’s endowment since their father passed away. Dan Erdman recently created a new scholarship for OTM students—with a preference for female candidates in honor of his mother, Joyce.   

Burrill Competition

Urban Wemmerlöv works with students at a business plan competition in 2014.

“I told Urban I saw some parallels between my father’s business in the early years and the way Urban developed the Erdman Center,” Dan Erdman says. “They both were totally passionate about it. We often joked in our family that we had four kids, but we called his business the fifth child and the one he loved the most. Urban definitely had that passion for the Erdman Center and it shows.”

Dan Erdman says he admires how Wemmerlöv’s leadership stayed steady through 20 years of change.

“My father always believed any business has to evolve and adjust to the times and that’s exactly what Urban has done,” Erdman says. “I give him credit for that, I’m sure it wasn’t easy.”

In the beginning, Wemmerlöv says, the mission was to train students in manufacturing who wanted to become managers. An engineering degree was required to enter the program. As U.S. manufacturing declined, the program shifted. Rather than eyeing jobs as manufacturing executives, students now seek careers at firms such as Google, Intuit, and Amazon or as health care consultants. In the beginning, applicants were required to have two years of work experience; last year’s incoming class averaged seven years, Wemmerlöv said.

“Most of the students still have an engineering degree or have work experience in a technical area—either in operations or information technology,” he says.  “Then they can become product managers at software companies, health care consultants, or go to a variety of other destinations.”

Under new leadership

The Center is embarking on a new era with Professor Enno Siemsen becoming executive director. Siemsen came to the Wisconsin School of Business from the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota, and has expertise in the fields of forecasting, sales and operations planning, operations strategy, product development, and project management.

“I’m very fortunate to take over a Center that has been run for 20 years with good leadership, good outcomes, a good MBA program, and a very active and engaged alumni and board membership,” Siemsen says. “If you take over a position that someone has held for 20 years, people are going to continuously compare you to them. I’m not Urban, and the vision I have for the Center in the future is a little different.”

Enno Siemsen

Enno Siemsen, Procter & Gamble Bascom Professor of Operations and Information Management at the Wisconsin School of Business.

Siemsen says his biggest goal is to further engage faculty in the Erdman Center, so they can see its benefits to students and to themselves. One way he plans to do that is to develop new ways to support faculty research. In instances where a researcher needs field data, Siemsen says, the Center can work with companies to build trust in order to access the data. That might mean creating nondisclosure agreements or ensuring further security for the data.

He would also like to better connect board members and faculty, so board members can learn what research is underway and faculty can learn about problems board members are facing in their organizations.

“We can create great events where that kind of dialogue can happen,” Siemsen says.

Siemsen and Wemmerlöv are confident that the support from the university and industry will continue to make the Center thrive, as will the advantages of a graduate business education that complements an engineering, science, or technology background.

“I’ve never changed my mind, after all these years,” Wemmerlöv says. “This is still a model that works.”