Alumni Spotlight: Dr. Nizar Abdelkafi, Associate Professor at Politecnico di Milano, Italy

Where do you work now?

I am working now at the the Department of Management, Economics and Industrial Engineering (DIG) at Politecnico di Milano, Italien (since July 2020) 


What is your current position title?

I am Professor in the field of Industrial Engineering, in particular in the area of Supply Chain Planning and Management.


When did you work at Fraunhofer IMW, and what was your role as Head of the Business Models: Engineering and Innovation Unit?

I have worked at Fraunhofer IMW from September 2010 until June 2020. As head of unit Business Models: Innovation and Engineering, my tasks were manifold. First, I had a management task, that is to coordinate the different activities of the unit. Second, I had a strategic task that deals with the long term orientation of the unit. It was important, not only to position the unit’s research externally, in other words with respect to what competitors are doing, but also, internally, inside Fraunhofer IMW itself, to develop a value proposition that fits to the institute’s mission and that harmonizes well with the research activities of other units and divisions. Third, I had a project acquisition and research task. The objective was to look for funds, be it from public or private institutions to finance the research ideas of the research unit. Once the projects are approved, my role was to ensure that the projects are successful and achieve their goals.  In addition to these tasks at Fraunhofer IMW, I was also lecturing at the Department of Innovation Economics and Innovation Management at the University of Leipzig. I was teaching Innovation Management for Bachelor and Master classes.


Where did you study and what degrees did you attain in order to achieve this position?

First, I earned an Industrial Engineering degree at the National Engineering School of Tunis (ENIT). After that, I got a Master Degree in Management from Technische Universität München (TUM). I received my PhD degree from Hamburg University of Technology (TUHH). Finally, I got my habilitation degree from Leipzig University (UL).   


What did you find particularly interesting about your work at Fraunhofer IMW?

I joined Fraunhofer IMW in 2010, as the institute was very young (only 4 years old). It was very interesting to observe how the institute evolved and developed, how research became more diversified, but still with a recognizable core, how the number of projects and researchers steadily grew over time. Being part of the institute during these years was very enriching and full with learning opportunities and experiences. In this sense, I owe much of my personal and academic development to Fraunhofer IMW.


Did your time working at Fraunhofer IMW prepare you for your current professorship, if so, in which ways?

Sure, at Fraunhofer IMW I had the opportunity to lead research projects, to do research, to write publications, and also to do lectures at the Chair of Professor Thorsten Posselt at the University of Leipzig. In this sense, Fraunhofer IMW prepares you perfectly for a professorship. Nevertheless, because of project duties or fund raising pressures, I remember – during my work at Fraunhofer IMW – that I oftentimes had to postpone some of my publication projects. In this respect, we may be at a disadvantage compared to university’s researchers who can dedicate most of their time to publications, since at the end what really counts most for a professorship application is the number and quality of the publications written by the candidate.


Did your experience at Fraunhofer IMW shape or influence your relationship to Supply Chain Planning and Management or your other areas of expertise?

Yes, definitely. First, I must say that during my PhD, I worked at a logistics department and therefore I had a lot of “contact points” to Supply Chain Planning and Management. At Fraunhofer IMW, I had two main research topics: Business models and to a lesser extent standardization. It turns out that Business Models and Supply Chain Management are tightly related. By the way, I wrote an academic paper that deals exactly with the connections between both fields. Business models had influenced a lot my view on Supply Chain Management, and I would like to drive this view even more in the future.


What are your current areas of research focus and academic interest?

First,  I am tackling the question how do supply chains shape and drive new business models. There is, I think, a lot to be done in this respect. Second, I will focus on the impact of digital technologies on supply chain innovations. Third, the question I find really interesting is how to make supply chains more resilient to disruptions such as pandemics.


How is your field of research impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic?

During the pandemic, supply chain management has even gained more in importance. Some supply chains continued to function, in spite of the disruption. Others got serious problems and are struggling a lot. There is a lot of opportunity out there, especially to design more resilient and robust supply chains. In summary, the pandemic will accelerate research in the area of supply chain management. 


Are there any important lessons to be learned from Supply Chain Management in addressing this global crisis?

The global crisis has shown how vulnerable our supply chains and business models are. Supply chain management delivers important lessons in this regard. To achieve more resiliency, global supply chains have to rely on two principles: redundancy and flexibility. Redundancy means passive protection, like having two redundant systems in an airplane, when one breaks, the other takes over, whereas flexibility is about adapting effectively to the disruption. I think, putting these principles in practice to redesign supply chains – and also the way we have been doing business so far – will enable us to come better through future crises.


What was your most memorable moment as a team member of Fraunhofer IMW?

The most memorable moments as a team member of Fraunhofer IMW are the moments when the institute wins an outstanding project, to which many departments and research units contribute, a project that attracts the attention of the public to the institute, and which is so promising for doing good and breakthrough research for the benefit of industry and society alike.


What is your lasting impression of Fraunhofer IMW?

I spent very good years at Fraunhofer IMW, and this is because I was lucky to get to know very nice and competent people with whom I really enjoyed working. As per the German saying “People see each other at least twice in life”. So, I am just waiting for the next opportunity to see again my colleagues and friends at Fraunhofer IMW:


How do you see the field you are working in changing in the future?

I think that the world after the pandemic will change at many levels. In my field, teaching and research will be changed in the long term. We will definitely not come back to the point we were at before the pandemic. Now, we should reflect on how we want the future to look like, not only with respect to contents and topics,  in my case supply chain planning management, but also to the way we conduct research and deliver lectures to students in the future.