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ND business prof wins research award for study on product recalls

by Carol Elliott

November 18, 2013

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From fresh produce to meat, food recalls present a growing concern to public safety, and a challenge to companies in the supply chain.

Cantaloupes, Chevre cheese, coconut pies and, most recently, 90 tons of ready-to-eat salads and sandwiches are just a few of the items recalled from grocery shelves in the past year because of contamination, mislabeling of ingredients or other possible health hazards.

In addition to posing a threat to public safety, defective products also present a potentially devastating challenge to the supply chain, from producer or manufacturer all the way to the retailer. How effectively a company responds to the challenge is critical; yet little is known about the process that they employ in managing recalls.

Kaitlin Wowak, assistant professor of management at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, recently won a research award for a study examining the product recall process. “Why do Some Product Recalls Succeed and Others Fail?: A Grounded Theory Investigation of the Recall Process,” earned Best Empirical/Theoretical Paper honors from the Decision Sciences Institute (DSI).

Wowak and co-authors Dave Ketchen of Auburn University’s Raymond J. Harbert College of Business and Christopher Craighead of Penn State University will be recognized at the institute’s November conference in Baltimore.

According to the study, a key driver of whether a recall is handled successfully is related to how a company manages two aspects of the process: knowledge conversion speed, or how quickly the company acts on information regarding tainted products; and knowledge precision, or how well a potential recall situation is understood.

One of the findings of the study is that while having more knowledge and faster responses are better during recalls, having one but not the other can actually increase the negative effects of these disruptive events. The research also identifies six different “recall process manifestations,” or potential combinations of responses along these two aspects, each leading to different results.

“Product recalls are becoming increasingly common, but most firms still don’t have a holistic understanding of the recall process or how to identify and remove tainted products from the chain,” said Wowak. “Our study outlines a recall process that can help companies more effectively remove contaminated products from the chain, and sheds new light on the tension between knowledge precision and knowledge conversion speed.

“A firm’s natural response during a potential recall situation is to act quickly, but doing so without a holistic understanding of the situation can result in a misdiagnosed or cascading recall,” she added. “This in turn can increase the cost of the recall and the potential impact on consumer well-being. From an academic perspective, our study provides a foundation for future research in this critically important, yet underdeveloped research area.”

Wowak’s research interests lie within the field of strategic supply chain management, with a focus on supply chain knowledge and disruptions. In recent studies, she has focused on product recalls and how these disruptions can facilitate organizational learning and capability development to mitigate the impact of future disruptive events.

She is also currently studying traceability and how firms can trace products as they are distributed through global networks. Her research has been published in Decision Sciences, Journal of Business Logistics, and IEEE Transactions on Engineering Management. She received her Ph.D. in business administration from the Pennsylvania State University; her M.S. in information systems from Johns Hopkins University; and her B.S. in finance from the University of Florida. She teaches introduction to process analytics to undergraduates.