Kelley On Campus: A Nerve-Racking Litmus Test For Online MBAs

Kelley On Campus

Daryle L. Johnson, the interim president and CEO of Mid-States Minority Supplier Development Council, addressing MBA students in a Q&A session at Kelley On Campus:

In a classroom oversized for just five MBA students, a faculty coach is exhorting a team to get their presentation together. They are less than 24 hours away from getting in front of a couple of judges and doing a ten-minute dog-and-pony show on a challenge facing a non-profit organization–and they are struggling to come up with the big idea that would lead to a successful outcome.

The five students in Team 17–all studying for the degree online–have only met in person for the first time a few days earlier. Strewned about the room are flip chart posters filled with scribbled thoughts and multi-colored Post-It notes, all evidence of much work trying to piece together a solution to the video case study specially developed for the client who will ultimately gain the benefit of their thinking.

The goal for Team 17: To become one of six out of 36 teams to make it to the final pitch and emerge the ultimate winner of the live case competition. The team’s five young professionals are among 180 students assembled on the Indiana University campus of the Kelley School of Business vying to present a plan to a panel of judges that includes the client CEO from the Mid-States Minority Supplier Development Council, a non-profit that connects under-represented suppliers with America’s top corporations. The council’s core challenge is to create a more sustainable business model to better support itself through the good and bad times in the economy.


Kelley online MBA

Brainstorming by Kelley On Campus by the winning team of a live case study competition.

When Tatiana Kolovou, a senior lecturer at Kelley, walks into the classroom on a Sunday afternoon in May to help coach the students, it’s clear they are still struggling to come up with a coherent answer to the challenge, even though their presentation is less than 24 hours away. The pressure is building, and Kolovou is trying to get the team on track.

“You have to have a story flow that is persuasive and gets to the main idea in the first 90 seconds,” counsels Kolovou. “Thinking and feeling don’t work in argumentation. You are not the experts. You have to reference the experts to influence the decision-maker. You need other resources and supporting data to back up your credibility.”

Courtney Guthridge, a supply chain specialist at Boeing from Philadelphia, is at 24 years of age the youngest person in her Kelley cohort. She easily sums up the case. “The situation is not knowing where their next dollar is coming from,” says Guthridge. “They have to make their revenue consistent.”


But the ah-ha moment seems elusive. Some team members think the council could get a regular flow of money by charging members annual dues in exchange for a bundle of services that would include an existing supplier certification program with mentorship and education. “We need to narrow down the ideas and do the research to back up the recommendations,” concedes David Duffy, a financial analyst at Northrop Grumman and another Team 17 member.

“You need the voice of their customers,” advises Kolovou. “These are also pieces of evidence for your conclusion. You are only going to have ten minutes to present,” she warns, “and the Q&A is where these things are won or lost.”

Like almost everyone else here for this four-and-one-half-day Kelley On Campus session, they are generally feeling anxious and frustrated, in part, because the school’s professors have held back many of the details that would allow them to quickly come to a solution. Instead, the professors who developed the case are leaking it out piece by piece in nine separate videos and a “strategy blitz” of templates and worksheets. The process, after all, is more important to the learning experience than an easily digestible panacea for the organization that is the focus of the case study.


For the MBA students, Kelley On Campus is one of three signature experiences students will undertake during their learning experience over the average two and one-half years it takes to complete the program. This one is the first-year in-person exercise that allows students to connect with their cohort, faculty, and career coaches at the university campus in Bloomington, Indiana. Roughly 80% of their time on campus is devoted to the live case study.

It’s a highly structured event, besides the analysis of a business challenge and the resulting high-stakes presentation, there is networking, other academics and an understanding of what it is to be a Kelley MBA. Students arrive on a Thursday when they are onboarded with sessions on how to leverage their MBA experience, understand the dynamics of working in a team, and how to overcome inevitable frustrations when conflicts emerge. On Friday, the lead Kelley faculty members— Will Geoghegan and Greg Fisher—lead the students through a strategy blitz of templates and worksheets and show the first client video above the teaser they have already viewed. On Saturday evening, there’s a Q&A session with the interim president and CEO of Mid-States but it is purposely brief. In between, students meet in five-person teams with a faculty coach popping in and out to guide them through the process of putting together a presentation on Monday.

During their second year, Kelley Direct MBA students meet up in a U.S. city for Kelley On Location, a theme-based conference experience that connects a geographic location with a modern business topic. Students are immersed in a specific business context and put their coursework from the first year into action. They can also choose a domestic or international immersion experience. The third signature experience is an integrated case study capstone taught by three of the school’s best case study professors, including two former deans.

“While traditionally it’s an online MBA and we have invested a ton in making the online elements engaging, there is nothing that replaces physical connection,” says Greg Fisher, a professor of entrepreneurship at Kelley who helped to develop the case, “We recognized the value to provide the students the opportunity to connect with each other and build on their relationships. We’re also giving them a closer connection with IU, a much stronger sense that they are part of the Kelley family. And finally, we’re also helping them to utilize what they have already learned in the MBA and to present a context for future learning.”


Kelley online MBa

The five Team 17 members

All told, the client will receive lots of free advice. “They are getting 5,000 hours worth of young professional thought and intellectual capacity, 180 people working 25 to 30 hours on their challenge and they get the benefit of taking what comes out of it,” says Will Geoghegan, chair of Kelley Direct programs. “Most clients take different pieces from all of the teams in the finals at least that they are tempted to integrate into one holistic solution.”

The value for both students and the participating client is evident. “There is purposely not an answer to the case study and the client doesn’t know the answer,” says Fisher. “There is never a perfect answer. We want clients to come with issues they are actually grappling with. Our students have a faculty coach to support the team. We want them to wow the client and give them something they might implement in the future.”

The exercise is unique in online education. No other business school in the world asks its full-time professors to develop live case studies for every in-person campus visit for online MBA students. It is an extraordinary commitment of time and investment. Fisher and Geoghegan devoted 10 to 12 days to developing the case and creating the videos. Some 13 coaches were enlisted to support the 35 student teams, each in separate breakout rooms. Students had to be booked in nearby hotels, with all members of a team in the same hotel.

By the time the students graduate with their MBA degrees, most consider it the most valuable experience of the program. So far, Fisher has been responsible for 17 of these case studies, while Geoghegan has written a dozen. The current exercise is the sixth video case since moving to a video case format in 2021. The faculty now believes that video is a richer and more vivid way to present a case study than one done on paper.

“A lot of schools go into this online space because of the low marginal costs,” says Patrick Hopkins, vice dean at Kelley. “We are looking at the future of education. These are substitutes for residential programs so they need to be as outstanding as a residential program.”

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