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Darla Moore School of Business

  • Image of the spring 2021 Design Thinking class discussing their project

International business, UPS Design Thinking project spurs business innovation

UPS has created a global business partnership with the Moore School’s Folks Center for International Business and the Sonoco International Business Department that combines real-world experience with teaching to develop the next generation of top international business leaders. Students gain career-ready skills while collaborating with the multinational shipping and supply chain management company on strategic projects that provide solutions and efficiencies for UPS.

A recent Moore School student project with UPS involved Design Thinking, a structured approach to creativity and problem-solving that starts with the end user in mind. Since Design Thinking is human-centered at its core, Jochen Mueller, vice president, human resources at UPS International, saw this as a mutually beneficial opportunity for partnership.  

“UPS deeply values the expertise and leadership in international business education that the Moore School provides,” Mueller said. “Design Thinking offered us a new approach to challenge our thinking about an important business problem combining strategy and stakeholder engagement.”

With the UPS-collaborative Design Thinking for Global Business course, Master of International Business students learned about the concept of Design Thinking from Hildy Teegen, professor in the Sonoco International Business Department. Teegen studied Design Thinking at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University and at the Luma Institute – both industry leaders in advancing the Design Thinking Process.

Teegen, who served as Moore School dean from 2007-2013, focuses her current research on stakeholder collaboration in challenging domains, which can benefit from the concept of Design Thinking.

What is Design Thinking?

The Design Thinking methodology helps companies research, train and solve business challenges in new, innovative ways. The process first focuses on the people companies are building products for, services and solutions; empathy is used as the first step so the company can better understand consumers’ perspectives. It uncovers human needs, reduces risks associated with developing new products and services, generates innovative rather than incremental ideas and builds value long term. The Design Thinking process is divided into five phases: empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test.  

“The Design Thinking process should not be understood as linear where one phase follows the other but rather as an overall roadmap of phases that are conquered in a repetitive and agile way,” Teegen said. “This approach allows organizations to discover and address customer problems early in the development process. As a result, the adoption of new and innovative products and services is more successful as barriers to adoption are reduced.”

Design Thinking for Global Business is an intensive sprint project and an elective in the MIB program. The course is required for students to earn the Business Analytics Graduate Certificate that applies science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills to business strategies. 

Design Thinking brings critical qualitative methods tools to business analytics for the Master of International Business students and complements the Moore School’s focus in this area, Teegen said. It teaches students quantitative methods to analyze and transform data and consequently allows decision-makers to incorporate qualitative data along with quantitative data.  

“The combination of quantitative and qualitative data is especially important in international business as context, and therefore, multiple diverse factors matter critically for sustainable business success,” Teegen said.

The students focused their real-world project with UPS on expanding the shipping company’s asset-light strategy, an essential tool to fuel growth and strengthen an ecosystem of partnerships. This business model extends capabilities, such as people, processes and technology, to a global constellation of trusted third parties for on-the-ground implementation. This allows UPS to focus more on their own core capabilities to optimize their global network as they grow internationally.

The UPS Challenge

As part of the asset-light strategy, UPS is building an online platform that works for all stakeholders and helps UPS to stay competitive in the ever-evolving logistics sector. UPS challenged the MIB students to apply the Design Thinking technique to understand requirements of UPS strategic allies around the world who are essential players in providing UPS services.

Building options for a successful online platform required coordinating and leveraging the needs and capabilities of diverse internal and external stakeholders. 

These internal stakeholders included delivery drivers, logistics centers and support groups with the service providers. External UPS stakeholders involved outside service providers from Europe and Asia as well as authorized service contractors from the Middle East.

While the company is familiar with Design Thinking and has applied this methodology in the past, it was relatively new to this challenge of connecting stakeholders and to UPS project sponsors Nigel Davies and Abhijit Saha.

Davies has worked for UPS since 2004 and is the vice president of international engineering. Saha has worked for UPS since 2000 and is the vice president of international strategy. 

This challenge allowed the students to use the Design Thinking tools to experience empathy by interviewing different stakeholders and seeing their perspectives, define requirements of the stakeholders for a successful platform, imagine innovative solutions and concepts and prototype these ideas with the stakeholders.

Student Insights

While working on this project, many students realized that Design Thinking could be applied to a wide variety of businesses and challenges. The skills they gained from this concept can be applied to many applications like sustainability of a food supply chain, personalization of health care and much more. 

Some students were able to directly apply their learnings from the Design Thinking course in summer internships and subsequent job interviews. 

Niklas Breuer, a December 2021 MIB Double-Degree graduate, applied what he learned in the spring 2021 Design Thinking course to his summer internship with Amazon’s Small Business Empowerment Team in Munich, Germany. Amazon’s Small Business Empowerment Team enables small businesses all around the world to build additional revenue streams for their storefronts. 

Breuer said he used the tools and methods taught in the Design Thinking class to develop empathy for small business owners in the U.S. and Europe. 

“Truly understanding the needs of small businesses enabled me to come up with innovative ideas to the challenges I was working on over the summer with Amazon,” Breuer said.

Sarah Sanders, another student in the spring 2021 class and a UPS Global Scholar, said she applied the skills she learned from the Design Thinking course in her role as an intern with UPS Capital. UPS Capital is the insurance business unit for various shipping services.

“I used my learnings from the Design Thinking class to interview and build empathy for different stakeholders while crafting a process improvement plan for an internal system,” she said.

A May 2022 MIB Double-Degree candidate currently enrolled in ESCP in Paris, Sanders is specializing in the international market development track. 

“I proposed to run a Design Thinking workshop for UPS Capital in preparation for their annual strategy conference,” Sanders said. “The professionals attending the workshop said they appreciated my input because they have never had much experience with the Design Thinking methodology before.”

Sanders and her Design Thinking course classmates agreed that learning the Design Thinking method gave them a new toolkit to use in future professional settings as they begin their careers. 

Read more IB stories in the February 2022 "The Edge" E-Newsletter.


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