MBA students help streamline Penn departments

As far back as the 1990s, Penn has actively sourced supplies from local businesses, spurring economic activity within the neighborhood community and minimizing the University’s ecological footprint.

“Supporting the local community is a priority of the University and our local purchasing program is an important component of Penn’s greater local engagement effort,” says Mark Mills, director of Penn Purchasing Services. “For many years, we have had a keen focus on West Philadelphia, which has been very successful. As we continue those efforts to bring opportunities to our West Philadelphia suppliers, we are also considering our purchasing impact on Philadelphia and the region.”

But to remain leaders in local purchasing requires new and innovative ways to reinvigorate collaboration among Penn Purchasing and businesses in its backyard.

Enter the Field Application Project (FAP), a MBA-level Wharton School course that pairs teams of students with 30 to 50 businesses, nonprofits, and University departments per semester to efficiently refresh a specific sector or issue in their organization.

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Mills expressed interest in the FAP to Keith Weigelt, course head and Wharton’s Marks-Darivoff Family Professor, and soon, a group of Wharton students was meeting with Penn Purchasing leaders to assess the department’s current operations and develop a meaningful managerial action plan.

“We work hard to provide opportunities in the community. One of my personal goals with Penn Purchasing has been to find out who the influencers are at the University, and to leverage the brainpower we have here,” Mills says. “If it helps Wharton students to dig into our work with this project, and it helps us help the community, we’re all the better for it.”

Weigelt says that’s the ultimate goal of the FAP course—for students to apply knowledge they’ve learned in the classroom while providing assistance to people and their organizations.

“In this course, students gain real-life experience,” says Weigelt, who has been leading the course since its inception 20 years ago. “Most students aren’t very good at putting a frame around an unstructured issue. Here, they’re scaling a project down, framing the results, while working within a group and developing leadership skills.”

The course, MGMT 653, allows one or two teams of four to six students to choose a host organization to work with over the course of a semester. During this time, the teams devote approximately 200 to 300 hours conducting research and analysis under the supervision of a Wharton faculty member with expertise in the given issue, culminating with a detailed written analysis and action recommendations for the host organization.

With Penn Purchasing, the FAP students delved into the many aspects of the department and made three key recommendations: to bolster communication between buyers at Penn and their suppliers, to make the Penn Purchasing website more user-friendly, and to benchmark against peer universities to discover new practices that could be beneficial to Penn.

Since the culmination of the partnership last fall, Penn Purchasing has already implemented several of the Wharton team’s recommendations, including a new component to the Penn Association of Business Administrators (ABA) forums that allows local business leaders to sponsor and connect with potential University buyers at meetings. Mills says entrepreneurs from Wash Cycle Laundry, Mia & Me, and Replica Creative have already successfully presented at recent ABA forums.

“The Wharton students gave us a new way of looking at it,” Mills says. “They were bright, ambitious—it was a great experience. We were ready to hear criticism, and it reminded us that we can always be doing more.”

Weigelt says FAP teams are currently working with Penn departments such as the Division of Public Safety and Penn Vet’s Ryan Veterinary Hospital. Course organizers are currently recruiting host organizations for the fall semester until July.

To be an ideal match for FAP partnership, Weigelt says projects should have interdisciplinary potential and should come from departments and offices willing to be responsive to students.

“Most of the project proposals we get are broad, and we help scale down the scope and help make them appealing for students to select them,” Weigelt says. “We are willing to help the community and alumni, and we’re more than open to give back to the University.”

For more information on the FAP and how to submit a project proposal, visit the course website.

Originally published on May 1, 2014