Logic and logistics

The University’s partnership with the Commonwealth Center for Advanced Logistics Systems is commendable, but the center’s aims are vague

People in certain corners of the business world might think of something tangible — phone calls, paperwork, red pens — when they hear the word “logistics.” For such people, improving logistics may be an art with its own delicate pleasures and frustrations. But when Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell Tuesday announced the formation of the Commonwealth Center for Advanced Logistics Systems, with which the University will partner, we had mixed feelings — confusion among them. We are glad the University is continuing to brand itself as an agent of economic development. But we are dismayed that the governor’s announcement came in such vague language.

Commercialization can be a slow process. A concept or technology that arises at a university research center may not scramble through proof of concept and development for quite some time. The center aims to quicken the path to product. By bringing together companies and public agencies, such as the University, McDonnell’s logistics group seeks to support applied-research efforts for the good of Virginia’s economy.

When it comes to research, universities continue to outmatch private industry efforts, at least in Virginia. It is to be expected, then, that firms in the Commonwealth would look to universities for assistance.

On the other side, schools like the University could benefit from a dollop of private dollars. Industry members who become part of the center pay membership fees of a few hundred thousand dollars a year (the precise amount varies based on membership level, in country-club fashion). The center funnels these fees into research and development projects. Though partnering schools had to fork over money at the start to establish the center, the University will likely stand to gain financially from working more closely with industry partners.

That the University — along with Longwood University, Virginia Commonwealth University and Virginia State University — elected to bring its talents to bear on the governor’s initiative comes as no surprise. The University has recently displayed an eagerness to brand itself as a regional economic development engine. In October, for example, the University signed an agreement with the Virginia Economic Development Partnership and the State Council of Higher Education that sought to market the Commonwealth as a good place for businesses to invest by highlighting the strengths of Virginia’s public universities. The University’s consistent willingness to apply its human capital toward boosting Virginia’s economy is a crucial component of the institution’s public-service efforts. It should continue to seek ways to assist entrepreneurship, especially through avenues that draw more research funding to the school.

So the University has jumped to be a part of the center: but to do what, exactly? The center, which will be located just south of Richmond, will dedicate itself to solving logistics problems. Between 20 percent and 50 percent of costs are tied up in logistics, reported a press statement McDonnell released Tuesday. To this end, the center’s first two industry partners are logistics pioneers: Prince George-based Logistics Management Resources and McLean-based LMI. Both firms provide logistics services to government agencies.

One would be hard-pressed to think of anything more unsexy or vague than logistics management. The field is undeniably important. It is also undeniably broad. Logistical challenges are everywhere: as organizations grow more complex, more problems may potentially arise. And in attempting to solve practical problems, firms will gain by drawing on the University’s expertise. But by making logistics the center’s focal point, McDonnell and center officials stifle this exciting new initiative in stagnant business speak. They give the burgeoning group a good deal of leeway: The group’s goal is “streamlining and strengthening operations and improving products and services,” as McDonnell’s press release puts it — an aim broad enough to attract a range of businesses, but nonspecific to the point of meaninglessness. The University’s partnership with the center points to the fine line the institution must tread as it continues to market itself as a sparkplug for economic growth: it must find opportunities to boost the economy without losing sight of its higher goal of knowledge production. Unclear language suggests unclear ideas, and the sterile speech with which the center describes itself does not give it, or the University, its due as a potential site of innovation.

For now, though, little harm has been done: and for the University to back out at this point would be a logistical nightmare.

related stories