Showing Students What's Possible
Jordan Tong uses research and real-world data to help students solve complex problems
As a mathematician, Jordan Tong likes finding a model to help create an elegant solution. As an assistant professor of operations and information technology at the Wisconsin School of Business, Tong has found a model to create success.
It’s part teaching, part research, part dedication to the School, and part service to his profession. Tong’s commitment to each has quickly made an impact in his five years at WSB.
Last spring Tong was recognized with two of WSB’s top faculty awards—the Erwin A. Gaumnitz Junior Faculty Research Award and the Mabel W. Chipman Outstanding Faculty Award for Excellence in Teaching. He has also been published in the top journals in his field, and helped put WSB’s Operations and Technology Management (OTM) program on the map by bringing top scholars to the School and to Madison through seminars and conferences.
“Because we have such talented lecturers, sometimes I think, ‘What is the value of a researcher in the classroom?’ But I’ve come to realize I bring different and important strengths than if I were just teaching,” Tong says. “Thinking about the research that curriculum is based on and trying to create new business knowledge through my own research makes me more confident I can help students better navigate situations where no simple fact or memorized procedure solves your problem.”
It all makes for a heavy schedule for Tong, who still manages to keep it light for those around him with an infectious laugh and positive attitude that rubs off on students and colleagues alike.
“That’s part of his persona. You talk to him and it just brings out a smile,” says James Morris, professor emeritus and chair of the Department of Operations and Information Management. “He connects so well with students in the classroom. Part of that is his personality, but that goes along with his deep knowledge of the subject matter.”
Creative solutions to tricky problems
Tong’s research focuses on behavioral operations management and supply chain management, particularly in judgment and decision-making.
“I get especially interested when a problem is difficult and you don’t even know how to approach it and you really have to get creative,” he says. “I like that process of a problem being vague and not very well defined and not knowing at first how you could model it mathematically to come up with any insight of what to do. It’s almost artistic: How can I do this elegantly and in a way that I can communicate it, and then solve it?”
And yet there is practicality to Tong’s research in that it provides insights into how decisions are typically made and how to help firms make better ones. How can an organization plan for a random demand surge? What can help managers predict future demand based on past data if the past data doesn’t capture the times the company could have sold more but ran out of inventory? Why might managers be overoptimistic about a product they choose to bring to market and how can organizations structure their decision-making process to avoid overinvestment?
“Research gives me a very high tolerance and perseverance for navigating ambiguous and ill-defined problems, which I think is valuable to my students,” Tong says. “I try my best to help them maintain their composure and learn how to systematically attack such problems.”
Tong says he also likes to instill a “hacker mentality” in his students, one that makes them want to dig for a solution with whatever tools they have at their disposal.
Assistant Professor of Operations and Information Technology
“Professor Tong really focuses on teaching you to teach yourself,” says Andrew Louis (BBA ’17), who took Tong’s Operations Analytics course last spring and is working with him as a student assistant this fall. “The tools are going to evolve, and he teaches us that you need to find the resources to learn the tools yourself because once you’re out of college, there’s not just going to be a class you can pop into.”
Tong created the Operations Analytics course that debuted in Spring 2017. It covers important topics such as forecasting and optimization under uncertainty so students can learn to apply them to operational problems. He teaches them current industry tools for data exploration and analysis. And he wants them to tackle real-world, mini-consulting projects that he creates using real business data from alumni and industry partners. There wasn’t a specific magic answer students were after; they needed to analyze data to come up with their best solutions within an assigned amount of time and then communicate the limitations of what they did—much like they’ll do in the working world.
“The problems can be quite challenging and solutions are never 100 percent perfect—which can be frustrating,” Tong says. “I’ve had students say, ‘I’ve never worked harder on anything.’”
Louis says it paid off for him, both in landing an internship at Exact Sciences last summer, and from nearly the moment he started working there. On his first day, he was at his new desk for five minutes when he was given a project with a quick deadline.
“At first it was a little intimidating,” Louis says, “but because of the experience of the class, I thought, ‘I’ve done something like this before. I can figure out what I need to do to get it done.’”
Marissa Caspary (BBA ’17) also put the class to use last summer at Saputo Inc., where she was a supply chain planning intern. She had taken business analytics classes, where she worked with structured data that would lead to a specific outcome. The Operations Analytics class challenged her problem-solving skills with unstructured projects.
“I liked how the projects he gave us were real-world problems,” she says. “It made the projects more meaningful and made them something that I could talk about in an interview.”
Designing learning opportunities in the classroom and beyond
Tong has also taught Operations Management, a required core class for all BBA students that he and Tim McClurg, senior lecturer in the Department of Operations and Information Management, restructured and team-taught. Despite large class sizes they incorporated case studies and online simulations with a goal for students to learn to analyze and interpret data to make decisions. Tong and McClurg’s methods have worked so well, Morris says, it is having an impact on enrollment in the OTM program. Students take the class early in their time at WSB and some enjoy it enough to then pursue the major.
“We’re the quiet major,” Morris says. “Everybody knows finance, everybody knows accounting or marketing, but operations and technology management doesn’t have that same recognition. With this effort, as well as some other things, our major count has increased dramatically.”
Tong and McClurg also launched a new student organization, the Badger Operations Association, last fall. As more students learned about the OTM major, interest in the club grew, too, from 15 members in the fall to 30 in the spring.
Tong knows students don’t necessarily come to college knowing about majors such as operations or supply chain management; he didn’t know about them, either. He was a mathematics major at Pomona College in California, wondering how best to apply his knowledge, when he heard a talk on campus by Amy Ward, professor of data sciences and operations at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business. That inspired him to pursue operations management as a graduate student at Duke University, and connect that research to business applications.
Finding ways mathematics could create solutions to organizations’ problems turned out to be a perfect fit for Tong.
“My mom said when I was really little she would often find me reading a book called How Things Work, so I think I’m naturally curious about that kind of thing,” he says. “It’s very satisfying to me when you can show me a simple explanation for something that is not obvious at first.”
It’s a theme that doesn’t go unnoticed at WSB.
“Everything he has done has been problem-solving, and if they’re not problems they’re challenges,” Morris says. “He’s finding a way to do things that need to get done.”
Students apply new skills to inform MBA cohort selection
Three undergraduate students are working with Tong this fall to prepare projects for his next Operations Analytics class using industry data and putting into practice some of the work last year’s class began. The students get to further learn from Tong and hone their skills as they use data optimization to create incoming student teams within the Wisconsin Full-Time MBA Program. MBA candidates are placed into four- or five-member teams across career specializations to work together during their first year of core courses at WSB. The MBA program staff wants teams to have equitable characteristics that include GMAT scores, gender, specialization, and work experience.
Assistant Professor of Operations and Information Technology
“They were creating the teams by hand,” Tong says. “We said, ‘We can optimize that.’ With this project we turned vague notions like ‘I want to have teams with roughly equal intellectual power and diverse backgrounds’ and translated it into numbers and formulas to enable optimization. We had a cool problem, we solved it, and we hope we can give back to the School.”
That same search for solutions to problems that seem vague or impossible is what primarily drives Tong—be it through research, creating a course, staying relevant in his field, or especially in the classroom.
“After people have been through my class, I hope they learn that it’s not so much a matter of being so naturally talented that you can learn seemingly impossible things, it’s a matter of learning that most things are possible if you put in the hard work,” he says. “If you can change someone’s mentality, that can be life-changing.”