The goal of the resource centers at Auburn University’s Raymond J. Harbert College of Business is to make an impact at the intersection of business and academia.
Dean Bill Hardgrave does not believe in old school thinking. He does, however, believe strongly in impact, engagement, and innovation.
Those are the three pillars Hardgrave has used to guide the development of programs and initiatives at Auburn’s Harbert College of Business. “Impact and engagement go hand in hand,” Hardgrave says. “For a long time, business schools were viewed as ivory tower institutions. Now we have to engage the business community, be a part of it. Make it part of our DNA. We embrace that. We have created research centers that sit at the intersection of the academy and the business community. One of the reasons we have done that is to make it easier for the business community to engage with us, to find the front door. We want to make it easy, not difficult.”
The radio frequency identification (RFID) lab at Auburn is a good example of this kind of openness, a resource that gives businesses interested in the technology a point of entry. “Put yourself in the place of the business person on the outside. How would they find the front door to access the expertise the university has? So the research center helps companies find that front door. It provides the architecture for businesses and the academic community to interact,” Hardgrave explains. The RFID lab is located a couple of miles off campus in an old Bruno’s supermarket that has been renovated. In the lab, staff can replicate just about any scenario. Companies come in—not only from all over the U.S. but from all over the world—to visit this lab, see the technology in action, and talk to the staff there. The research center is fully staffed with faculty, a full-time RFID staff that run the lab on a daily basis, and students, both grad and undergrad, all working on various projects. “If a company wants to learn how RFID could help their business, they could call up an RFID vendor, but that vendor is always going to have a bias because they are selling something,” Hardgrave says. “Nothing [is] wrong with that, but that is just the way it is. So the company is always going to wonder, ‘Are they telling me that because they want to sell me something or are they telling me that because it is true?’ As an academic organization, we are kind of like the Switzerland of that relationship. We are neutral. We have nothing to gain or lose. We are not selling anything.”
Very common projects for the university in RFID involve designing a test, collecting data, and analyzing and reporting that data, all in an effort to help a company determine whether RFID technology could make a positive impact on their business. “They know that whatever we collect we are going to report back,” Hardgrave says. “We are not trying to manipulate or massage the numbers. It is what it is. So when the company gets the report, they don’t have to think about what the angle is. Companies are making multi-million dollar decisions based on that data, so it better be right. As a university, we know how to set up things so that we [get] good analysis.
“As a result, we have projects with the Targets, the Walmarts and Macy’s, and the Deltas, so it’s not just retail,” he continues. “The Tycos and Motorolas of the world also work with us because from their technology service provider side, they are interested in what we see in industry. So we pass along those needs so the vendors can go out and start developing that technology.”
Supply chain management is another area in which Auburn is hard at work developing a research center to interact with private business enterprises. “Supply chain for us is a fantastic area. We have been growing that over the last several years,” Hardgrave says. “It is our fastest growing major in the college now. Students have been getting phenomenal jobs. We have doubled the faculty. We are No. 4 in the world in supply side research. That is exactly where we want to be. About five years ago, we drove a stake in the ground and said we want to be known for supply chain, and we made that investment through Mr. Harbert’s gift. That was one of the areas we dedicated those funds to because we felt we could be nationally and internationally known for it.”
The first step in building a power academic vertical is hiring the talent and expertise to be a major player in a discipline. With the talent in place, the research center can come online.
“You have to be careful not to overreach or try to be all things to all people,” says Hardgrave. “You can’t develop centers where you don’t have the depth of expertise. It is like anything else; you can ruin the reputation for all by ruining it in a single area. So you have to very strategic in the centers that you build. We are being aggressive in academic terms, but we are taking our time and making sure it is strategic. You have to have the faculty expertise. Without that, the center doesn’t really live.”
Auburn has a great legacy of entrepreneurship among its graduates. That legacy is the bedrock that the Lowder Center for Family Business and Entrepreneurship, a third major research center, seeks to build on. “Folks were finishing up their degrees and going elsewhere to build companies. The Lowder Center works to get graduates to stay in the region, stay in Alabama. We say, ‘Let us help you get that new business started,’” Hardgrave explains. “We started working on an incubator, created the Tiger Cage competition based on Shark Tank, and are going to launch an accelerator. We want this talent to stay in the area. It creates a vibe when people see how we support the entrepreneurial eco system.
“I see that as something that is not only the right thing to do, but as something we owe to the business community and the state of Alabama—to make sure we do all we can to foster that,” he says.