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June 2006     
  Dean Sunil Chopra
  Senior Associate Dean Sunil Chopra

Faculty Profile

Sunil Chopra: Manufacturing MBA students of the future

Senior Associate Dean: Faculty and Teaching; The IBM Distinguished Professor of Operations Management and Information Systems

Do you have a sense of what kind of initiatives
you would like to undertake as Senior Associate Dean?

The first is to continue with what Bob Korajczyk and David Besanko have done. Beyond that, I’m hoping we can bring even more faculty research to the classroom and use it to develop new classes. That will really keep us on the cutting-edge. I’d like to talk to faculty to see the best way to achieve that goal.

Are you aware of any current research that would make sense to introduce into the curriculum more formally?

One existing example is the ethics course created by [Professors] Tim Feddersen, David Austen-Smith and Adam Galinsky. This is a very good example of what can be accomplished when faculty pull together ideas. Tim, David and Adam have research interests in ethics, but if you look at each of them it’s clear that the topic is not restricted to one functional area. They came together to build a course, which I understand students are signing up for in large numbers.

It’s just a question of working with the faculty to see the other opportunities to bring research to the classroom.

Is this also dictated by student demand?

Absolutely. But as a top institution, we have to be very careful, because we are in two businesses: disseminating and creating knowledge. What students want is a pull-driven strategy, but in some sense with that you are following the market and you can never drive the market. It’s like when you want new products – one strategy is to wait for everything to settle down, be very clear about what customers want, and then try to provide that for them. I think core courses fit into that category. However, on the electives side, Kellogg has historically been more aggressive in developing courses, and I think that’s where we really need to tie-in as closely as possible the knowledge creation that is already occurring throughout all the departments.

Has your experience running the Master of Management and Manufacturing (MMM) program given you an idea of the challenges you will face in the dean’s office?

One of the constant challenges we faced in the MMM program was defining what the product looked like. Who is a MMM student? This was a question both for students and for recruiters. We decided that the answer was someone who has depth in operations coupled with breadth across all functions, what we call the “T” model. They’re very good at connecting issues across the breadth and contributing to depth in their area of expertise. My feeling going forward is that successful MBA students will follow the “T” manager model. It might be great depth in finance or marketing or strategy, whatever the field. I think in five years or so we will see more of this kind of student coming from the top MBA programs.

Do you have a sense of how to implement this kind of change?

I don’t have a pre-defined answer and I think that’s something that needs to be studied. I know finance and marketing already have an offering where depth is offered beyond the major. You can take the core and three electives to get a major, but in both there is also a track that takes you deeper and gives you more of a certification of depth. If we can develop more of that in different areas it gives students the opportunity to define an area of depth and link across the program.

Now this is not something we can mandate . . . but as a top business school our job is to make students even more attractive and my feeling is that those two areas are critical – getting our students more depth and also cutting-edge research. If you look at problems that companies face, they tend to go across functions. So we can ask ourselves: what kind of student is in the best position to contribute solutions to these kinds of problems? My personal feeling is that it’s a student with a very solid understanding of one area that they can then link to everything else.

You’ve clearly made an impact on your students, as demonstrated by your many teaching awards. What has been your approach to relating to students over the years?

I first try to ask myself what the essence of the topic is. ‘Why are we teaching this, why is it important?’ Very often, coming from a research background, the tendency is to focus on the technical or methodological aspects. However, what students find really valuable are the implications on strategy or policy of what I’m doing tactically or methodologically.

The key challenge as faculty is to take the idea, explain the essence and then apply it to many circumstances that students can identify. Ultimately, I think they’re going to forget any detailed methodology or technique . . . but what they need to remember is a way of thinking. What I always tell students is that they should leave Kellogg with a business model of their own, how a business works and why certain things are right or wrong.

Did it take some time to develop this philosophy? Was that a learning experience?

I did not come to Kellogg with that idea at all – it wasn’t even close. In fact, I sort of struggled in the classroom at the beginning. Being able to connect with the students and teach them took awhile.

Around 1992, the operations department was having difficulty in the classroom conveying the relevance of operations, so we had a meeting with [Dean Emeritus] Don Jacobs. He had a very simple but pointed question: ‘There are six of you out there teaching, and if I ask each of you what you’re teaching, I’m actually getting different answers. So how can you call this a core class?’ This raised a more fundamental issue about what is the core, and what one really needs to know.

How did you and your family end up in Evanston?

I got my doctorate at SUNY-Stony Brook in applied mathematics, so when I applied for positions I wasn’t considering business schools at all. I had an offer from New York University, which had a department of statistics and operations research that just happened to reside in the business school. That’s how I ended up at a business school! I was there for three years, and then at the end of that year my wife was expecting, and we felt that Kellogg would be a wonderful place if they would have me. So I applied, and I came to Kellogg in 1989.

One thing that turned out really well for me was that when I got the job at Kellogg, they told me I would have to teach the core and one elective. I offered to teach logistics management because I knew nothing about it. As a faculty member, that’s the best way to learn. Over time I got much more interested in supply chain management to the point where I spent a lot of time and wrote a textbook on the topic. Most of my research is now in this area.

For me, ending up at Kellogg was one of the best outcomes I could have hoped for. I think I have learned a lot, and as a faculty member that’s what you hope for, that you are constantly learning and moving ahead.

What is life like for you outside of Kellogg?

I have two sons, one who is a freshman and one who is going to be a senior in high school. I like to ride my bike and I enjoy playing racquet sports, squash and tennis. I’m still hanging on to that. We will see how long I can last in racquet sports.

I enjoy reading . . . If I travel, the plane is one the best places to read. I used to read a lot, but it’s slowed down.

What do you like to read?

I enjoy both fiction and non-fiction. My favorite fiction is all sorts of mysteries; I think I have read every Agatha Christie novel. I enjoy reading at a stretch, and that is where I have difficulty right now. I like to start and finish all at once, and that’s something I can do when I travel.

The last good thing I read was a book written called Untouchables: My Family's Triumphant Journey out of the Caste System in Modern India by Narendra Jadhav, who belongs to what was characterized as the untouchable caste in India. He’s now a very senior government official and wrote this biography about how his parents really struggled to push all their children into higher education around the time of independence.

I’m trying to read Devil in the White City right now. I enjoyed the first 25 pages, but it’s another one of those books you have to read from beginning to end at one stretch. I just put it away because I’m traveling to Hong Kong soon and that will be my book for the long flight.

© 2006 Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University