Tuesday, October 25, 2016

12:07 AM

Simon heightens its emphasis on experiential learning as MBA and MS students apply their skills and talents to an array of projects for organizations looking for a fresh perspective on business issues. 

By Charla Stevens Kucko

Classroom instruction is the foundation, but no graduate business education would be complete without hands-on experience in the field. Simon Business School has long provided ample experiential learning opportunities for students through a variety of student projects with both for-profit and nonprofit organizations to help solve complex business issues using the skills gained at Simon. This fall, the School is increasing its emphasis on experiential learning in an effort to meet market demand and to prepare students for real-world problem solving.

“As part of the recent strategic planning exercise, we identified communication, problem solving, and working in teams as three critical elements that employers across all industries rate as very important,” says David Tilson, associate dean for the Full-Time MBA program. “Employers look for evidence of those skills when they interview and select candidates for open positions.” Tilson has overseen nearly 100 student-consulting projects as part of his consulting practicum class. This fall, Tilson is leading a new and expanded three-unit Business Consulting project course for all Full-Time MBAs. The project experience is designed to complement the co-curricular Simon EDGE program, which is focused on the core competencies recruiters seek in job and internship candidates. The initiative also includes a revamped extracurricular Vision program for both MBA and MS students, strengthened communication and program management of project opportunities with Simon alumni and the community, and a broad list of project-based courses available to both MBA and MS students. It is being offered in conjunction with the Office of Student Engagement led by assistant dean of students Carin Cole ’99S (MBA). Tilson says the projects benefit the clients as much as the students. “Clients found that the student teams really move the ball forward. Teams have helped clients discover the root cause of issues, find creative potential solutions, and define the criteria for selecting the right solution,” he explains.

Starting last winter, for the first time, student projects became a requirement of the Simon Management Communication curriculum for full-time MBA students. “The objective was to create a kind of learning laboratory for teamwork,” says Carol Shuherk, clinical assistant professor of business communication. Shuherk will collaborate with Tilson on the new student project course and students will get more unit credits and more direct instruction. “We’re not training students to be team leaders in the sense of a designated person being ‘in charge,’” Shuherk says. “We’re training them to organize, allocate, and complete work though a collaborative process in which different leadership roles are distributed as needed over the course of the project.”

One of last year’s projects that stands out for Shuherk was with the wealth management firm Alesco Advisors, based in Pittsford, NY. Student team members and 2017 MBA candidates Charlie Gao, Rinat Gusev, Fisher McKenna, Mridhula Menon, and Erika Nathan worked with Alesco staff, including senior analyst Jeremy Ho ’14S (MBA), to study indexing as an investment strategy in inefficient markets. “We wanted to engage the students to do some research [primarily through identification, review and analysis of relevant literature over the past 15 years] on less liquid asset classes in which some practitioners have traditionally thought active managers outperform, such as emerging markets,” Ho explains. “The claims of many portfolio managers have been that active managers fare better, but the students found that for many of these asset classes, active management reduces returns, so their research supported our belief that we are investing client assets in an optimal way, and that indexing produces superior returns.” Ho says the collaborative effort was a great success. “I think the students were excited to work on a project that had a real impact on the firm, and it was particularly engaging for those who want to work in finance.”

Charlie Gao, the team’s point person for client contact, agrees. “Alesco uses passive investing, which means using very low fees to earn market return,” Gao says. “Our project was to collect data from the past 15 years and do a thorough analysis on whether the active investing firms are actually earning excess returns compared to the market.” The project mirrors what Gao plans to do in the future, giving him firsthand experience in the industry he wants to pursue. “Alesco is fighting a war against Wall Street through passive investing, and they’re winning,” Gao says. “This project was a huge supplement to my classroom knowledge.”

Project LeanNation's acting chief operating officer and
creator of opportunities Brent DeRouen coaches clients
Another highly successful student project that Shuherk cited as a great example of the benefits of experiential learning is Project LeanNation (PLN), a nutrition education company that sources, produces, and retails prepared meal plans for people seeking to lose weight, build lean muscle mass, or take a more whole-food, natural approach to nutrition. With locations in Rochester, Buffalo, and Providence, expansion plans are underway in the Charlotte, NC, area. Two Simon student teams worked with PLN founder Tim Dougherty and his staff on a competitive business analysis with exploration of growth strategies and a franchising strategy. While both projects were successful, the competitive business analysis created by Simon 2017 MBA candidates Allen Bediako, David Berg, Kathryn Flaschner, Adithya Goudar, and Audrey Tang helped identify the corporate culture and how it affects the PLN user community. “The team did a lot of research on our current client experience, our workspace, and how it could be flexible and more conducive to a community-based business,” Dougherty says. “As a result, we reorganized our space, making it more friendly to our community, and we invested in building an online platform that’s social community driven.”

Students say they were inspired by Dougherty’s passion for his clients. “It was a phenomenal opportunity,” Flaschner says. “We spent a lot of time there, and Tim gave us full freedom to interact with clients.” The team studied the client experience, the brand, and the retail space. “The goal is to be very flexible depending on the client needs, and Tim and his team are really there to work with you,” she notes. “I think that’s one of the strengths of Project Lean Nation.”

The biggest challenge facing the company was client retention. Retention is what it takes to achieve long-term results, PLN’s core goal, so the students focused on client preferences. “We asked them what they enjoyed about the program, and what needed to improve, and we also looked at competitors to get a sense of what they offered,” Bediako explains. Students examined everything from food production and distribution to pricing and cost. “Tim wanted to increase customer retention time from 6 to 12 weeks,” he says. “We recommended hiring a Food Everything Officer to focus on food production and operations to give Tim more time to focus on the customer experience as well as expansion into other markets.”

The result? The students provided fresh insight and perspective on how the younger consumer wants to do business. “We found that their buying patterns and the way they want to be communicated with and how they want to communicate with us as a brand are different,” Dougherty says. “So if we want to be an evolving company that’s going to stand the test of time, having insight from young users offers us a ton of value.”

Adding value is something professor Richard Couch believes the students are doing for companies that need a new perspective. Couch served as the advisor for more than 20 MBA student projects last year in conjunction with Shuherk, who taught the communication aspect of the MGC course, and each team was assigned a second-year MBA team coach. One of the most meaningful projects for Couch was with the Alzheimer’s Association. “A team of MS students wanted to work on a project, so I assigned them to the association,” he says. “There are 15 million people with Alzheimer’s, and it’s a terribly devastating disease that can go on for many years.” Couch says the cost of care for Alzheimer’s patients and their families is extremely expensive, and most families are hesitant to place their loved ones in specialized care facilities. The topic hits close to home for Couch. One of his late parents had dementia and the other had Alzheimer’s. “The issue for the Alzheimer’s Association is lack of awareness of the services they offer for patients’ families due to limited funds,” Couch says.

“The project was a tremendous learning experience for the students, particularly those from countries where the customs are totally different and elder care happens entirely at home.” With limited budget and resources for marketing and communications efforts, the association was looking for creative ways to get the word out. MS students Siegfried Eggert, Anita Valleria Sangaka, Pooja Singh, and Lu Weiquing created a marketing plan for a one-year period that was aimed at reaching people in need of services provided by the association. The team gathered data on demographic distribution in the nine counties the regional chapter covers, examined available marketing channels, compared them in terms of cost and reach, and came up with non-traditional marketing ideas. “The project was beneficial to us on multiple levels,” Eggert says. “We were engaged in a real-world consulting project, made the most of a limited budget through effective planning, improved our ability to work and coordinate tasks as a team, and learned how to navigate an uncertain situation and solve the issue in the most efficient way. Most of all, we were able to act in a professional setting and contribute to a worthwhile cause.”

The value for the Alzheimer’s Association was substantial as well. “Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States today and the only one in the top 10 with no cure, prevention, or treatment,” says Teresa Galbier, president and CEO of the Alzheimer’s Association, Rochester & Finger Lakes Chapter. “It is critical that we get the word out about how important an early and accurate diagnosis is.” The Alzheimer’s Association offers five core services to assist those with Alzheimer’s and their families to make informed decisions about their day-to-day care and future planning. “With the information that was collected by the students, we are now better equipped to understand our major media markets and maximize our ability to spread the word,” Galbier notes.
Student projects are a significant part of a Simon MS in Business Analytics. In the capstone course, Strategy and Business Systems Consulting Practicum, led by professor Chris Dunstan ’81S (MBA), students have to solve a real business problem using a real database, and they have to create a value proposition framed in terms of the industry environment to come up with a recommendation that creates value.

One such project involved hospital readmissions and the government’s curtailing of reimbursements for visits within 30 days. “If you think of the number of independent variables, it’s staggering,” Dunstan says. “There is one for every ailment that can be classified.” So the students are using principal component analysis to find the most meaningful predictors among those categories and adding other variables such as age. The projects involve poring over research and then finding partners, databases, and even live data from previous clients. “For the first time in history, we have the confluence of huge data sets, cheap and vast computational power, and algorithms that can serve as a basis for mining data,” Dunstan says. “It’s not just the amount of data that’s there, it’s the powerful tools that are now at our fingertips to make sense out of it. I’ve helped build three courses in the Business Analytics curriculum and it’s been a lot of fun.”

In addition to curricular changes to enhance experiential learning, the School is expanding international immersion opportunities for full-time students. Two academic courses and one international trip to Switzerland, Israel, or Asia are available to MBA students during winter and spring breaks. An expanded list of several new locations for international immersion opportunities during breaks is under development.

For information on how your company or organization can enlist Simon talent, contact David Tilson at david.tilson@simon.rochester.edu or Richard Couch at (925) 980-7553 or richard.couch@simon.rochester.edu.


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