Lots of MBA programs boast real-life, experiential learning projects. Few send all of their MBA students (yes, part-time, weekend, global, the entire gamut) around the world to spend extended time solving an organization’s business challenge for a required course credit. Michigan’s Ross School of Business has been doing just that for more than two decades.
Experiential learning is not rare for Ross MBAs. From the moment first-year MBAs step onto the Ross campus, they are thrown into real-world projects. The Ross Leadership Initiative’s Impact Challenge puts newbie MBAs in teams of 75 or so to write a business plan and launch a venture within a week—before classes even begin. Students might also participate in the 24-hour Leadership Crisis Challenge at the beginning of every spring semester too.
Currently, all 440 plus first-year MBAs at Ross are spread around the world in 85 different teams participating in the Multidisciplinary Action Projects (MAP), which is the seven-week course required of all full-time MBAs at Ross.
Different sponsor organizations come to Ross with their real-life business problems. A committee of faculty members at Ross sift through the more than 100 proposals, decide which problems they will assign their students, and post the list. Students then examine the list and submit their top 15 choices. According to Bill Lanen, a Ross professor and director of the MAP program, a “sorting algorithm” is used to place the students in teams and on projects. Once the teams are formed, they are each assigned a faculty advisor.
This year, teams are based in 25 different countries, with 65 percent of students placed outside of their home countries. Since 1991, the program has placed nearly 10,000 MBA students in 93 countries with more than 1,200 sponsor companies that include corporations, startups and nonprofits.
The projects include assisting in food manufacturing challenges for Tetra Pak in Nicaragua and milk supply chain issues in India with ITC Limited. Teams are also delving into sports industry related projects with the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins and various projects with tech giants Google, Facebook and Amazon.
THE FOUR IDEAL GOALS
Lanen explains the goal of MAP is to have students achieve four main goals. First, he hopes to see students walk away understanding project management better. “In other words, how do you best structure a project,” says Lanen. “That is making sure a project is done on time, is done in a systematic way and nothing is left out. The biggest difference is the problems they are used to are structured, in the classroom and have somewhat clear answers. MAP problems are more unstructured.”
Next, Lanen says students should develop relationship management skills. “How do you manage relations within your team but also with your sponsors and their stakeholders and employees,” Lanen says. “The difficulty is within the team there is no established leader. One of the first things they have to do is work through how they will work together and interact with each within the team. Then they have to decide how to interact outside their team within the organization as a whole.”
Third, Lanen is looking for teams to develop is knowledge management. That is, applying all of the knowledge they have gained through coursework to a real-life, complex business problem. “It is identifying what parts of your knowledge strategy fit in certain areas and which parts don’t fit,” says Lanen. “How do you manage knowledge in a functional setting? How do you manage all of that knowledge from your marketing strategy class, or operations class and so on? How do you apply that knowledge in the correct places?”
Finally, Lanen says teams should develop leadership skills. It goes back to the complexity of not having a clear team leader. Lanen explains teams can either appoint a team leader or learn how to work together on a level playing field.
OPPORTUNITIES TO LEARN ABOUT NEW INDUSTRIES AND CULTURES
According to Lanen, students choose specific projects and countries for various reasons. “Some are looking to change careers, so perhaps they will choose a marketing project to learn about what a career in marketing might look like,” he says. “Others do it to learn about what it’s like to do business in another country. Learning what it’s like to do business in a different country is a great skill they wouldn’t get in a classroom setting.”
Ross alum Scott Nisbet is an example of a student who worked with an international company and is now based in another country. He also knows first-hand the value of MAP for the students and participating organizations. Nisbet did his MAP with U.S.-based energy systems company Woodward. Now, he is a general manager in the company’s Poland office and hosts teams from Ross. This year, the team at Woodward is made up of Drew Baker, Sarthak Sharma, Ashwin Gopalrathnam, Joe Lan, Fernando Valerde and Andy Zhu.
The team is still learning the complexities behind energy systems. But the problem they will be tackling is (in a very simplified nutshell) figuring out how to establish Woodward in the marine energy industry while offsetting the variability in revenue stream with Woodward’s already-established presence in wind energy.
Members of the team come from around the India, Peru and the U.S. and have worked in engineering, sales, marketing, and consultanting. After a week, the team says they have been impressed by how organized Woodward is and how seriously the company is taking this particular project despite the team being made up of students.