In seven weeks, how do you come up with a mutually beneficial strategy for an established American company to enter an emerging market?
Resources are limited. Pressures from deadlines and organizational politics come into play. And the economic climate is constantly shifting, throwing variables into the mix.
In business school, these are known as unstructured problems. And to Sunder Kekre, Bosch Professor of Operations Management and Director, Center for Business Solutions, there is no better way to teach students to solve them than by putting them in real-world, real-time situations and asking them to apply what they have learned.
That’s why Kekre teamed up with Joe Raudabaugh, a partner with A.T. Kearney, Inc., to develop what the company envisioned as a business laboratory at the Tepper School. The idea was to bring together companies, executives, consultants, faculty and students, and challenge them with real-world problems.
“Just like we have residencies for physicians, this is a business residency for Tepper students,” says Kekre. “They can leverage their analytical thinking that we teach them in the classroom and also develop softer skills such as leadership and communication.”
Raudabaugh, who had long considered the idea of a business laboratory in an academic setting, decided to work with the Tepper School because he liked its reputation for developing crucial problem-solving skills.
“Carnegie Mellon University is foundational to the program,” he says. “The students are wired for the kind of topics our clients are interested in; the whole institution has always had an outreach to commerce.”
During the course of seven weeks, the student teams involved in Kekre’s project course were assigned to companies and given problems to solve. A Web portal allowed students and clients to meet virtually, and at the end of the course, they gave in-person presentations.
Subramaniyam “Subu” Narayanan, who earned his MBA from the Tepper School in
2009, credits the experience with reinforcing his career ambition to become a consultant and helping him finetune his skill set to prepare him for the position he’ll be assuming this summer with McKinsey & Co.
It really gave us insight into what consulting is all about, how these guys think, how they operate, and what kinds of pressures they face,” he says. “It required a lot of work, a lot of sleepless nights.”
Narayanan’s team worked for MeadWestVaco Consumer and Office Products. They were charged with finding ways for Mead to enter an emerging market, India, in a way that would benefit both the company and the geographic region.
The group set up a self-sustaining business model that allowed people in rural India to manufacture custom-tailored shirts, with profits getting pumped back into the region.
Some team members looked at the supply side, others at the consumer side. They spoke with tailors in India, analyzed employees in their target range, set a price, and performed a market analysis – all while carrying a full MBA course load.
The A.T. Kearney consultants involved in the course helped by looking at the students’ analysis and asking “what if ” questions, sending the teams back to the drawing board until they had a workable solution.
“The caliber of the work was very good,” he says. “It was evident that a lot of the background work that went on beyond the presentation was pretty significant and comprehensive. Those are the kind of nuances and details that you don’t see from an inexperienced student who has primarily had only classroom and textbook learning.”
“It was a lot of fun to work with these people,” says Narayanan. “It seemed overwhelming at first, but as the project unfolded, we had a lot of support, and everybody found their sweet spot.” Nik Hiremath, Mead’s vice president of global sourcing, was given weekly status reports that included activities completed and planned, major requirements, and pending decisions – “the type of snapshot [that] makes it much more effective to work remotely, when you have periodic updates that are concise and actionable.”
Kekre believes that the concept will continue to grow, allowing MBA students to collaborate with other Carnegie Mellon disciplines and ultimately partner with universities in Asia, Europe and South America to closely simulate the global business environment.
“We will mimic the real world as closely as possible, so when these students graduate, they will have the experience that will enable them to take on the projects they’re assigned with great confidence,” he says. “This is the new wave of management education, and I think that the Tepper School has led the way in terms of building on our strengths.”