“With time, I've become a storyteller”
Philippe Wieser believes his job is to prepare students for the reality of the business world. That’s good news for his classes, which get to benefit from his experience in logistics and supply chain management. An EPFL honorary professor, Wieser was named the best teacher in the management of technology section for 2022.
“Most EPFL students turn to careers in industry, not research, once they graduate,” says Wieser. It’s therefore no surprise that industry is the primary orientation of his teaching. “Companies are my own little test bench,” he says.
Wieser has spent most of his career in close contact with businesses. He studied civil engineering at EPFL and then, in the early 1980s, did his PhD here too (his thesis was on material resistance in shells under pressure). After graduating, he took a job with an engineering consulting firm in Aargau Canton. He stayed with the firm for two years, working in its nuclear division, before becoming an EPFL faculty member. That hands-on experience gave him a collection of anecdotes that he draws on freely to amuse and educate his students.
“My approach to teaching has changed a lot over the years,” says Wieser. “At first it was heavily oriented towards mathematics, but with time I’ve relegated the theory and equations to my class notes – and I’ve become a storyteller.” A storyteller in the best sense of the word, he’s quick to add. “I use both positive and negative examples to show students what life is really like as an engineer.” All his classes include a combination of lectures and project work. “What’s more, I don’t give my students much time or writing space for their final exams. They need to learn to write with impact – both concisely and accurately.”
Supply chains matter for healthcare, too
Wieser became interested in the field of logistics and supply chain management in the 1990s, when these topics came to the fore. “At the time I was teaching in EPFL’s civil engineering department, and I got my first look at the subject of flow management, which I found utterly captivating.” He mentions that the term “logistics,” which was used in the early days of the field, “has unfortunately given way to ‘supply chain.’” Why is that unfortunate? “I think the word ‘chain’ is misleading because rather than things occurring one after the other, there’s a whole network of value creation behind a given product or service.”
Wieser is now a leading figure in his field and has produced around 170 research publications and talks. He played an active role in setting up the International Institute for the Management of Logistics and Supply Chain (IML), a research consortium founded by EPFL, Ecole des Ponts ParisTech and some 50 businesses and international organizations. He’s been head of the IML since 2000. Wieser also helped establish EPFL’s College of Management of Technology, where he’s been a professor since 2008. Alongside these functions, he’s been teaching at Ecole des Ponts ParisTech for over 30 years.
The field of logistics and supply chain management has evolved considerably and grown in stature in the decades since it was introduced. “Today, one of the biggest issues companies face is finding ways to recycle, eliminate or reuse their byproducts,” says Wieser. And here, “their supply chain function can play an essential role.” The pandemic and the war in Ukraine – and the resulting supply problems – have “brought the field into the public eye and made people realize just how critical supply chains are,” he says. People are also realizing that supply chains aren’t just vital for the manufacturing industry. “I worked with many hospitals and healthcare networks over the course of my career,” says Wieser. “I applied my knowledge of logistics and supply chains to the healthcare industry, showing how advances in this field could bring benefits there, too.”
Wieser stresses that supply chain management “pulls together many different disciplines, because it involves logic, mathematics, strategy, computer modeling and more.” He regularly reminds students that “it’s the perfect example of a cross-functional role.” His classes at EPFL are open to students from almost all departments. “Having this variety of backgrounds in the classroom is a real plus,” he says.
Wieser officially retired in late 2019 and has been enjoying some well-deserved downtime after spending nearly three decades training the next generation of supply chain managers. He’s nevertheless remained active, as he still gives two classes at CDM. “Based on discussions I’ve had with colleagues in other countries, I see that it’s a real privilege to teach at EPFL, whether in terms of the work environment, the resources available or the freedom we’re given,” he says, adding that the students at EPFL are “top-notch.” But teaching such high-caliber individuals can be a double-edged sword for professors. “Now that technology has given students easy access to information, they’ve become more open-minded but also more demanding of their professors. We have to keep learning and working hard ourselves to stay on top of our game.”