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Research in Motion

Case studies are well and good, but more and more MBA students are getting outside the classroom.

There’s no doubt that the new economy has ushered in countless changes in the way we think, communicate, transact business and form partnerships. But critics say higher academia has long failed to develop decision makers capable of succeeding in this different world.

More recently, that appears to be changing. Multiple Canadian MBA programs now acknowledge textbook learning has its limitations and different approaches are needed to develop wordclass thinkers. 

Of course, the concept of using case study research as a teaching tool is hardly new. It can be traced back to 1924 when the Harvard Business School first introduced the renowned method. But several universities are taking that nearly 100-year-old technique to the next level by using real-world research that often incorporates students within the process to help solve actual business challenges.

As more and more companies do their own research and use methodologies such as Six Sigma, it stands to reason that students weaned on evolving MBA academic techniques are better prepared to adapt. “Oh, absolutely,” agrees Markus Giesler, associate marketing professor at York University’s Schulich School of Business in Toronto. “I myself grew up in a classroom in an MBA school where all we did in some sense was regurgitate established knowledge that most decision makers and managers take for granted anyways. That didn’t give us much of a competitive advantage.”

As part of Giesler’s Customer Experience Design course, he is currently leading his pupils through a search study that examines how empathy is a factor in the creation and survival of businesses within the sharing economy - the Ubers, Airbnbs and Task Rabbits of the world. These types of businesses carry inherent risks (such as bed bugs in an Airbnb, a drunk Uber driver or construction errors through Task Rabbit) that are generally factors in traditional industries and that may deter massive adoption.

The study’s hypothesis is that the very ethos of caring for others by such sharing-economy participants is one way to battle some of these risks.

Could little touches such as supplying water bottles, magazines or candy in an Uber car, or writing personalized notes and providing additional services in an Airbnb enhance the overall experience enough to stop consumers from complaining about something going wrong? This is currently being examined as part of a multi year study under Giesler that positions MBA students right on the cutting edge of business reserach.

Giesler’s been teaching in this manner for more than a decade now, following a model he calls “integrated scholarship” = taking his own work as a consult, incorporating it into his teaching and bringing the feedback, results and ideas from that environment back into the real world. “Everything I do as a researcher, I immediately translate in synergistic ways into the classroom, and everything I do in the classroom, in turn, drives, shapes, and contains what I do with managers,” he says. “In a way, research, consulting, and teaching go hand in hand.” 

In an era where textbook learning “is always antiquated by the time the knowledge enters the textbooks,” the benefits to the students of this approach are plentiful, Giesler says. “My students learn stuff that is immediately impactful in practice, so the boundaries between theory and practice completely disappear and the students get involved in really contemporary decision-making processes that are very different from the kind of simulations or exercises that you do when you use a textbook.” The other big advantage for students is that they establish industry relationships with HR management and senior decision makers early on. “So the hiring really beings in the classroom,” he says.

It’s clear that the students really appreciate this approach. “ one of the reasons why they love it is because it’s almost like being on the job. I had feedback from one student last semester who went to Unilever and he said, ‘What we did in the classroom is really no different than what I’m doing now on a daily basis in the job,’ Giesler says. “So there’s absolutely no conflict anymore between the classroom and new world management.” 

One of the reasons Giesler’s Customer Experience Design course is so rooted in real world issues is that unlike most MBA courses - generally developed by professors sitting around a table discussing ideas - his was created after he spent an entire summer traveling around the world talking to CEOs and chief marketing officers to better understand their needs and challenges. “The course is not tailored to the strengths and preferences of the professors, but what industry really needs,” he says.

Over on the West Coast, professor Yi Qian, who teachings Marketing Research at the University of Columbia’s Sauder School of Business in Vancouver, is employing similar techniques with her MBA students. Qian designed a lab experiment to explore how exposure to counterfeits affects the purchasing intent for authentic products. Her field data suggested that counterfeit products can sometimes have an advertising effect for the brand, thereby increasing awareness. The study was designed to find out why that’s the case and whether this hypothesis was experimentally sound. Students participating in the study learn how to devise proper research experiments and how to craft questionnaires to elicit the most accurate data. Their input is often incorporated into her research papers.

“For research faculty, we always aim to make the classroom a bit relevant in the sense that we bring our own research into the classroom or we talk about others’ research that’s relevant,” Qian says. It’s a process that really helps expedite the learning curve for the students. “A lot of the research we do in business school is also motivated by real-world debates or examples, so we spend lots of time and effort in gathering data and triangulating across different examples to come up with the abstract principles or theories,” she says. “In a sense, we are feeding students with all these new ideas that they may have had to otherwise invest years to accumulate.” 

Similar to what Giesler suggests, this teaching method ushers in a sort of symbiotic relationship between the professor and the students that’s beneficial to both parties. Qian says she gets almost as much from the interaction as her students do because of the classroom feedback and the ideas that it generates.

At the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Stuarts Hendrickson - a 25-year veteran of the corporate world - is very clear with his MBA students about what they can expect. “I’m not an academic and I don’t use textbooks,” says the I. H. Asper executive director for Entrepreneurship. “I have a shelf of textbooks and they gather dust.”

Hendrickson considers himself more of a facilitator than an educator. Before each semester, he reaches out to his extensive network - he’s on the boards of several companies and business incubators - to find opportunities where his MBA students can help real companies with real business issues. It’s an opportunity that is well received by those businesses. “Typically, this is exactly what they’re looking for: young, bright minds willing to help them.”

The problem with he case method now, Hendrickson says, is that all the students have to do is use Google and they already have the answers before they go into the class. “They’re not thinking, they’re regurgitating, and that’s exactly what we’re trying to get away from.” 

He recalls that when he came out of school, “I hit the real world and it was like I was hit by a truck. I didn’t really understand the normal way of thinking. I didn’t understand when you go in as a junior, you’re the guy doing research for the senior guy.”

There had to be a better way to prepare students for life after academia, Hendrickson surmised. Internships are one option that gives students corporate experience, but he says sometimes that’s not enough if students are given low-level tasks that are either too simple to learn from or just don’t have any bigger meaning for the company of the student. He has heard stories about groups of interns who sat in a room for four months, then gave a presentation about what they’d done. Everyone clapped and that was the highlight of their work term.

Hendrickson’s approach is to talk to companies about some of the problems they’re currently facing or possibly a problem that they plan to address within the next six months, and then send his students into work directly with the entrepreneur. “Giving students real-world examples and making sure it adds value to the company, that’s what it’s all about,” he says. “if you don’t have that two-way, it doesn’t really work.”

While some of the search that students in other programs get access to comes from whatever projects their professors have on the go, Hendrickson’s students learn by doing their own research. For example, his students last year worked to solve specific challenges for several businesses in Dubai, a country where has many contacts, having spent more than a decade stationed in Abu Dhabi. The students got their marching orders and works on them back in Canada for 13 weeks, engaging in weekly, hour-long Skype interviews with the Dubai businesses to gather information. Then, the MBAs traveled to the Middle East to give presentations to the companies’ executive committees or boards.

There were four projects in total, one of which involved sensitive information that Hendrickson would rather not discuss. One of the other projects was for the Dubai International Finance Centre (DIFC), an organization that oversees 1,200 financial institutions around the world. It was perplexed because it was struggling to gain a larger foot hold in Canada. The students connected with Canadian banks, insurance companies and asset management firms and put together a research report that examined why DIFC was not having more success. “Not only did DIFC love that report, they’ve stated an internship with our students because they were so impressed and the Canadian Business Council asked us to turn it into a white paper, which they submitted to government,” he says. The upshot was that DIFC has changed the way it’s approaching the Canadian market, focusing on asset-management firms that will see the value in its market.

Another projects was for Dubai Autodrome, a race facility where you can rent a high-end sports car and drive around a track. It used to be ranked the No. 4 thing to do in Dubai, but has dipped to No. 47 given all the development that the country has undergone. The students did some research and came up with several marketing concepts, revamped its website to incorporate many of their ideas, and gave suggestions on how to focus on Westerners, a market that the Autodrome was failing to attract. Hendrickson’s students also got involved with Aldar Real Estate, which was considering building an $800-million resort. The project had been put on hold twice and the board wanted a fresh set of eyes to look at the plan. The students did a complete review, comparing it to other resorts globally and then presented to the board. The project is still being contemplated, but Aldar at least now has the data - rather than a gut feel - to backup its plans.

These real-world examples of students making a legitimate difference speak to a sea change in the way MBA programs are conceived and executed. As Schulich’s Giesler says, gone are the days of crusty, elbow-patched, pipe-smoking professors dreaming up curriculum for MBAs. Now, courses spawn from legitimate business challenges and are designed to create a wave of business stars ready to tackle their post-graduate employment. “These decision makers, these MBAs, are really ahead of the curve,” he says. “They’re not just good at what is currently established knowledge and established practice, but they also know where the field is moving as a whole and that is an aspect of visionary, forward-looking competency that you don’t get in traditional MBAs.” 

Markus Giesler

York University, 4700 Keele Street, Toronto, Canada

Markus Giesler draws on concepts from economics, technology studies, and sociology to inform his research in marketing. He determines how ideas and things (products, services, experiences, technological innovations, intellectual property, brands, etc.) are made valuable over time, with research focused on improving marketing strategy through an understanding of markets as evolving social systems. Giesler's research has been supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) and the European Research Council (ERC) and published in top-tier academic journals such as the Journal of Consumer Research and the Journal of Marketing. Giesler has an extensive entertainment industry background. He founded his own record label at age 17 and has worked in various production and marketing responsibilities for over a decade. He lives in Toronto, Canada.