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HEC Paris Is Tackling The Big Questions Around Digital Innovation

Digital Innovation specialization arms MBA students with a mentality they can use for life, says Jean-Rémi Gratadour, executive director of the HEC Paris Digital Center


By  Thomas Nugent

Thu Jan 10 2019

“Everyone is talking about innovation,” starts Jean-Rémi Gratadour, executive director of the HEC Paris Digital Center. “But the question is how you bring this innovation into [existing] organizations.”

That’s one of the biggest challenges facing leadership in the digital age, he thinks, and one that HEC Paris aims to tackle through its new MBA specialization in Digital Innovation.  

Organizations need innovation today, says Jean-Rémi, and it’s his job to ensure outgoing MBA students from HEC Paris can organize their teams effectively to implement digital strategy wherever they go.

“I joined the HEC Paris MBA with the goal of becoming a strategy consultant in Europe,” says Nikhil Deshpande, part of the MBA class of 2019.

“After speaking with consultants across countries, I realized that a critical issue affecting organizations today is the advent of digital. I wanted to supplement my profile with the requisite skills in the digital space. This is why I chose the Digital Innovation Specialization.”

The Digital Innovation specialization is one of seven MBA specializations the school offers—the others are in Sustainable & Disruptive Innovation, Advanced Management, Entrepreneurship, Finance, Marketing, and Strategy.

Real-time business projects

The first part of the specialization focuses on managing digital innovation in a B2C service; the second on managing transformation within large companies in the industrial sector.

In the first phase, students are split into groups of four or five, and work for two to three weeks on a real-time business challenge set by the executive of a partnering company.

This year, says Jean-Rémi, students worked with Japanese e-commerce company, Rakuten. Their goal was to help imagine new services that would augment the company’s B2C offering, and help it compete more in the global market.

After working with their teams for up to three weeks, each group then faces the final jury, where executives from the company grade them on their proposition.

“This year, the three best projects were direct projects the company were already working on,” says Jean-Rémi. “They are very interested in the approach of the students, bringing value to something they are already working on.”

Digital Transformation participant, Liviu Teodorescu, also part of the MBA class of 19 at HEC Paris, says he chose the program because it is very hands-on. “Working with large global companies showed real-world pain points and challenges across industries, allowing us to work together to provide realistic solutions,” he explains.

The second part of the HEC Paris MBA Digital Innovation specialization teaches students about dealing with consulting within digital transformation. There is the same approach, and students again work with corporate partners on real-time projects.

All of this translates into the best approach for teaching MBAs in the digital age.

“When you are learning about technology, in two to three years everything is out of date and you have to go back to school and learn again,” says Jean-Rémi. “We focus on how to improve their ability to work together to solve problems, and how to share different skills to find a solution.

“The fact is, when you are teaching people this way you are teaching them how to use fundamental skills and improve these skills to create solutions.

“It’s an approach the students like very much, because it makes them creative and innovative, and it brings value to the company as they can present their work directly.”

World's largest startup campus

It’s not all about corporate companies on the specialization either. Students visit Station F, the world’s biggest startup campus backed by French businessman, Xavier Niel, and also the location of the HEC Paris startup incubator.

They visit the campus while students are working on creating their innovative service. Jean-Rémi explains that it helps to immerse them in an environment where creativity and innovation seep out of every pore.

HEC Paris has 75 startups in Station F. On their visit, students meet the founders of two startups who are around two years into development.

“We created this interaction because [executives] are able to teach the students about their company. After that, they ask them to make a proposition to help the startups improve their ideas,” says Jean-Rémi.

“We try to get the students to understand the process they’re going through.”

The whole specialization educates HEC Paris MBA students on the processes necessary for successful innovation implementation into a company today. The answer, then, to the question posed by Jean-Rémi at the start.

“We think when they understand the theme, they can reintroduce it whenever they need to in everyday life,” he asserts.

“If they want to find a solution to a business issue, or create a service or their own startup, or if they need to be innovative inside a company, they will know how to reproduce this innovation.”

Innovation for life 

The mentality aims to serve HEC Paris MBAs for their entire careers. But, although he launched the specialization with this approach in mind, Jean-Rémi says that he has been pleasantly surprised with what he has learned from the students.

Something he says he didn’t have in mind when they launched was the direct consequence the diversity of the HEC Paris MBA cohort would have on the specialization—the current cohort consists of 92% international students.

“We work in a western country and have a common vision of digital processes. When students come from all over the world you have to keep in mind that their vision of innovation and digital is linked to their cultural background,” he explains.

“It’s not just about knowledge, but about the ability to create linked to your cultural background. What came out was very impressive, sometimes really astonishing.”

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