Interviewed by Katy Huckle
Dr Yingli Wang has managed to squeeze me into her schedule in between papers, lectures and school runs. Softly spoken, she has always struck me as the person in the room most worth listening to. When she talks, people listen. She exudes an air of quiet confidence; every word is well thought out; every argument considered. Dr Wang always seems to have everything well under control – there is none of the chaotic academic cliché about her. Throughout our interview (which, uncharacteristically, exceeded our scheduled time by more than half an hour) she was open and honest. I very much enjoyed interviewing her and found that I too had a lot to learn.
So where did it all begin? Did you always dream of university life?
Well I graduated from university at 19 with a degree in Food Chemistry and Manufacturing and started working for Nestle in China as a Production Supervisor, so not really! At that point I was more interested in getting experience than a Master’s degree. I was working on the ice cream production line in a new factory with many expats from all around the world; it was a great learning experience and everyone spoke rubbish English – we had a lot of fun. We worked with an ancient enterprise resource planning system run in a DOS environment – if anyone can remember what that is!
At 23 you were the youngest department manager in the region. What do you think made you successful at Nestle?
I was young and ambitious at that time and Nestle offered good opportunities for career development. My career turned towards logistics and distribution – Nestle promoted me to the logistics department in cold chain. I wasn’t specialised into a particular function, which was a benefit as Nestle then developed me as a generalist. I worked in production, logistics, human resources, general management – you name it.
So you became a bit of a Jack-of-all-Trades. It was at this point you decided to start your MBA – what led to this decision and was it worthwhile?
I decided on the MBA because I really wanted to learn how to do things better. I came over to the UK to study and I specialised in IT; this was around the time of the dotcom bubble, which fascinated me. After the MBA I was promoted in Nestle to regional support unit manager; I was looking after 10,000 employees across 8 sales channels. I worked crazy hours – I always worked Saturdays, and my mobile phone was on 24/7. I would receive calls at 3am because the operation was 24 hour and we were constantly firefighting. It was quite a challenging time, but I really enjoyed and I definitely learned a lot from it.
Why did you decide to switch from Industry to Academia?
I’m a very curious person and in academia you have the freedom to explore and research whatever subject you are interested in. My MBA tutor had advised me to continue with academia, so I started applying for PhD programmes in the UK. I needed a scholarship, which limited my options, but then I met Professor Denis Towill and Professor Mohamed Naim at Cardiff University. They recommended that I apply for a research associate position (instead of a scholarship) at Cardiff, which made it possible for me to work and study for my PhD at the same time.
“I’m a very curious person and in academia you have the freedom to explore and research whatever subject you are interested in.”
I had planned to go back to China, however, after a PhD, I had a different idea about my career development. I wanted to continue my research, so when Prof. Towill and Prof. Naim encouraged me to apply for a Lectureship job, I did so gladly.
What did you take away from your time at Nestle?
I enjoyed the practical elements of working for a company and, since then, I have sometimes missed making a difference in practice. I think this is why I now really enjoy applied research as a way to solve real world problems – it is less theoretical and you can see the benefits in practice (instead of just lots of academic papers).
How did your new career start to develop once you had moved to Cardiff?
It was hard work at the beginning to combine working as a research associate with my PhD, but it was great experience. After a few years at Cardiff I started to develop a strong interested in technological innovation in logistics and supply chain, extended to explore the social impact of technological innovation as well. I have researched a variety of digital technologies and their implications on organisations and supply chains. For instance after the dotcom bubble burst we saw a surge of innovation in logistics, such as on-demand (now known as cloud) computing in supporting supply chain information flows, which drove improvements in physical flows of materials.
I started working with companies to bring an academic input to industrial problems; this really helped me understand the motivations arising from industry and apply my theoretical knowledge to help with problem solving.
What have you enjoyed the most so far in your career and why?
I enjoy working with my industrial partners and academic colleagues on a number of research areas, and have met many interesting people, and made some good friends along the way. I’m definitely more of an introvert; I don’t have hundreds of friends, but once I’ve become friends with someone, I keep them for a very long time. I have made good, lifelong friends through my work.
I’ve found that having a measurable impact, even in a small area, is more satisfying than pure academic publications. I don’t really like to deal with media and marketing; I prefer to stay grounded and down to earth, especially by helping people in industry and translating academic knowledge into solving real problems.
“Having a measurable impact, even in a small area, is more satisfying than pure academic publications”
I definitely get the most satisfaction from the practical outputs of work. For example, I’m quite proud of my recent foresight report on emerging technologies for the future of mobility – I actually spent all of Christmas working on it! I’ve also enjoyed working on social impact projects with disadvantaged communities in Wales.
Can you explain more about those projects? How did you get in to social impact work?
In 2011 I was selected for a Welsh programme promoting scientists in Welsh universities to collaborate across disciplines. We found that many people cannot access fresh food due to a number of issues, for instance due to low income, lack of public transport, and mental and physical illness. Some people suffer from literacy constraints just as much as financial ones – I really found it surprising that not everyone has a bank account – I was quite naïve it turns out!
The study addressed the issue of how to configure supply chains to help vulnerable people. For example, we looked at a veggie box scheme, which was provided free from the church. It seemed like a great idea but it was rejected by the consumers. The scheme missed the fact that people actually like to go to the shops to fulfil social needs. The question of how to maintain access to fresh food whilst allowing for social interaction is actually a wicked problem.
We also looked at how to assist social enterprises; they can operate with only £500 in their bank accounts and usually lack the commercial skills to manage a business, and have a higher failure rate. This poses a different kind of research problem. We engaged with a range of public, third and private sector organisations (which isn’t tech driven) to address this problem.
“How to maintain access to fresh food whilst allowing for social interaction is actually a wicked problem.”
After that, I became much more motivated to do that kind of work – where you actually feel like you are making a difference. Now I work closely with a social enterprise, piloting a food re-distribution initiative by providing advice on supply/demand and co-design a viable business model. Again it’s not exactly tech driven, but it’s still linked to supply chain, and actually my first 4* paper arose from this work. I really learned a lot from it and was delighted when I was awarded a funding to set up a PhD project exploring how to build economic resilience for social enterprises. This stream work has gained strong support from Welsh government.
Overall, what would you say are your key professional insights up to now?
I see a huge digital skills shortage in big data analysis, data development, data engineering, machine learning, cybersecurity and user-experience design. Education and training policies must deliver the new skills needed. Skills programmes should respond to changing industry demands, and specific schemes should retrain workers to adapt to changing conditions.
Transition in the automation age is a challenging time for all sectors and it may be more difficult for freight, given the historical negative image of the sector by the public and young people, an aging workforce and the shortage of key skills in maritime shipping, aviation, rail and road.
Logistics is also a heavily male-dominated sector; jobs in the warehouse are low paid, manual and (traditionally) performed by men. I personally believe that diversity leads to a happier workforce and more innovation; we need to bring women in to the logistics industry but in order to do so we need to make it more appealing. Technological advances might improve this situation.
But technological advances come with their own risks; I see a lot of concern around cyber security, particularly when it comes to the Internet of Things. Technology leads to vulnerable points in the supply chain, which are easy to attack when the security element is underdeveloped.
“Diversity leads to a happier workforce and more innovation; we need to bring women in to the logistics industry, but in order to do so we need to make it more appealing.”
Other factors are also leading to higher levels of supply chain uncertainty; natural disasters are one example, and the current political turbulences are extremely challenging for maintaining effective supply chain management. Personally I believe that we may see less inter-continental transport and more intra-continental flow, particularly in Europe. Supply chain organisations have got to build new, dynamic systems to keep up. The entire industry will have to adapt and change.
What have been your biggest personal challenges so far?
Achieving the ‘right’ work-life balance has been an ongoing challenge and I still think I haven’t done it well! It is definitely difficult to balance quality time with family and work. My partner also works full time and it was a struggle when our children were younger.
We have an Excel sheet about school runs and a number of after-school lessons – it’s like a military operation! Living away from China means that we don’t have much help from grandparents; we haven’t been able to go to the cinema alone since having kids. Thankfully technology has improved so we can at least watch Netflix at home instead. It’s a compromise!
“We have an Excel sheet about school runs and after-school lessons – it’s like a military operation!”
I have lots of different heads that I wear: I’m a senior lecturer, a mum, a daughter of ageing parents, and a wife. So time management is critical to me. I’ll admit that sometimes I pretend I’m not in my office to avoid disruptions! Fairly often I will start work at 7am and limit ‘corridor talk’ as much as possible just to get work done.
And what are your personal insights?
I would say that one of the most important learnings from my career so far is to work with good people; it’s easier said than done, but working with good people makes life a lot easier. I don’t like having to tell people what to do; if you hire good people, train and develop them, and then push them to achieve, then you will get the best results.
Something important for me personally is that I don’t try to work when I am at home with my family – which I have not succeeded fully; I am doing my best, trying give them my full attention at home, and I give work my full attention at the office. Trying to combine both doesn’t work for me; I need to focus. I actually use a timer at work to improve concentration – I’ll set it for 20 minutes and then work uninterrupted for those 20 minutes, taking short breaks in between. I find that extremely effective for improving concentration.
Exercise is also really important for me – I should have started much earlier! I’m not a gym person but I find that physical fitness really affects my ability to take care of other things in my life. I enjoy swimming, yoga, and cycling. And I’ve just taken up karate with my kids!
Overall, I would say it’s important not to think TOO far ahead in your career because things can change very quickly. Being able to adapt and change is critical in today’s world.
“Working with good people makes life a lot easier … if you hire good people, train and develop them, and then push them to achieve, then you will get the best results.”
Is there anything you might do differently “next time around”?
I used to feel a lot of stress with balancing work and home, but I’m much more at ease now. My children are a bit older, which definitely helps! Also I’m more experienced; being in my 40s has helped me make peace with a lot of things. I know what I want with my career and with family; I think this is something that just develops over time.
About Dr Wang
Dr. Yingli Wang is a senior lecturer at Cardiff Business School, Cardiff University. Her main research focus is on supply chain digitalisation and technological innovations. She has written widely on the subject and her recent practical publications include a research report and guide for Highways England on accelerating BIM adoption in the supply chain, a research foresight report for Government Office for Science on the impact of emerging technologies on future mobility, and a white paper on blockchain for supply chains for World Economic Forum (WEF). She has positioned her work at the forefront of technological development and innovation and been awarded more than £2.4 million in funding (both as principal investigator and co-investigator) from multiple national and international bodies. Yingli has contributed to a number of books on logistics and supply chain. The “E-Logistics” book, which she co-edited together with Dr Steven Pettit, has been extremely well received by both industry and academia.