Unilever Decision Analysis Group: Tailoring Stanford Courses to Meet Internal Needs


Professional Certifcate, Stanford Strategic Decision and Risk Management

Unilever uses decision analysis to help run its highly complex business. They employ 174,000 employees in over 100 countries and produce 400 brands of home, personal care, and food products. The diversity of their products and corporate culture makes decision making particularly challenging.

"We chose Stanford for two main reasons: Stanford is one of the world's most prestigious universities and the Stanford syllabus maps well to our in-house best practice."

Dickens and Sven Roden, a Senior Decision Analyst, decided to enroll in Stanford's Strategic Decision and Risk Management certificate program. Both were already quite schooled in decision analysis techniques and were responsible for developing and applying decision analysis across Unilever and training managers through their "Decision Making Under Uncertainty" (DMUU) program.

"Unilever has a high degree of organizational and analytical complexity. With over 1,000 innovation projects launched annually, we have many decisions to make that directly affect the future shape of our company," says Andrea Dickens, leader of the Decision Analysis Group within Unilever. "This, combined with bigger projects and a more competitive environment, requires greater clarity and better analysis of our business opportunities."

Completing the Stanford program provided an accreditation for their skills and knowledge and served to increase the group's credibility across the company. Dickens subsequently encouraged the rest of her team to take the Stanford program.

Dickens also wanted a way to roll out the Stanford program to an extended audience within the company. But she wanted to tailor some of the course content to use Unilever terminology and reference their specific software and processes. The solution? An arrangement between Unilever and Stanford where Unilever was able to add context to Stanford's modules to make them more specific to their internal needs.

In order to provide additional ability for Unilever to measure the program's success, Stanford designed an exam modeled after the Strategic Decision and Risk Management program but inclusive of the contextualization created by Unilever. They wanted to evaluate the effectiveness of their training program by assessing the knowledge managers obtained and how it influenced decision making. Putting a hard test at the end of a course was not common Unilever practice, so Unilever needed a way to make this more acceptable to managers. Managers are more open to taking an exam post training if they know it is going to provide them with a certificate from Stanford.

"The best bit for us was gaining agreement that we could put Unilever participants through the exams after the courses. This allows us to check the quality of our participants' knowledge and make sure their knowledge is up to an appropriate standard," says Dickens.

Unilever is now rolling out Stanford's modules to over 50 finance managers. Being able to teach managers how to quantify uncertainty and include real options provides more step change opportunities. "Some of these opportunities would have previously been rejected if they had used more traditional single-point financial evaluation techniques," says Dickens. "Conversely, the quantification of risks also means that Unilever is stopping value-destroying projects earlier, thus allowing resources, both money and people, to be focused on more attractive opportunities."

Their DMUU training program is now used routinely on major projects that have significant strategic decisions. Examples include determining the financial value of a new technology for Slim-Fast, assessing various launch strategies for one of Fabric Cleaning's projects, and quantifying the impact of the launch of Sunsilk on the overall US Hair Category.

Sven Roden, who is passionate about decision analysis and how it can be applied to real-life problems, is enthusiastic about the value added of Stanford's certificate program. "The accreditation of DMUU courses by Stanford and the more general rollout of the modules to our finance managers is a key step in making sure that our people have the best skills to keep Unilever creating value," he says.