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Putting Business Practice Before Theory In Emerging Markets

One innovative business school is putting business practice before the theory. Students work on tough cases in emerging markets before burying their heads in books.

By  Seb Murray

Tue Apr 8 2014

Valentin Beau was thrown into the deep-end. The musical Master’s student has recently enrolled at Grenoble Ecole de Management (GEM), in a new track for pedagogical innovation (the Ulysses Track or  Parcours Ulysse). He dreams of working for a major record label in a marketing role – but for six weeks, he was tackling a challenging Chinese case assignment.

His team of six worked for a leading Chinese design and rebranding firm. Only one person in the entire company spoke English.

Late night Skype sessions had become the norm for Valentin. The group, from Grenoble Ecole de Management, were tasked with studying the French design and re-branding market to give the company a European point of view.

“We had to deal with two main marketing issues; awareness in their country, how to gain market share; and human resources – a lot of employees used to move out to other companies each year,” says Valentin, who joined the leading French business school's Parcours Ulysse Program last year.

The company was leaking employees. They were partnered with a local design school, but those graduates lacked crucial skills in marketing and finance. Most of them joined competitors that were a better fit.

For a first-year student, it doesn’t get much more challenging. Yet Valentin couldn’t communicate with the employees. His team relied on a translator. “Even their website was entirely in Chinese,” he says. “If he wasn’t there to translate, we couldn’t move on. Without him it was impossible.”

For many business school students, working on live projects has brought substantial results. Big-name companies are used as a platform for job preparation. MBAs and other students pick up invaluable experience, while corporations get tangible results.

Experience is just one of the advantages. The potential connections can lead to real job offers, and at worst provide valuable networking opportunities. Moreover, students develop real managerial experience and a bevy of soft skills.

“The philosophy is based on problem-based learning. We inverted the whole idea of theory and practice,” says Michelle Mielly, a management professor and coordinator of the International Live Business Cases for the Ulysse track at GEM.

Michelle finds companies inside and outside of France which want to expand internationally. Practical experience has never been more important for today’s business school graduates.

“It was really successful – more than I thought it would be,” says Michelle. Grenoble has partnered with a company in Greece, which exports olive oil to Europe; a Grenoble-based company that makes lasers for rifles; and a software publisher for industrial simulation software, among others.

“It’s a very important thing to do early in their studies,” Michelle explains. “What we’re looking at is how do people retain information? How do they learn? And what is effective learning?”

Live cases offer the pressure of real business, in a relatively safe environment. MBAs and Master's students can apply the theory learnt during their course. Some feel it has given them a competitive edge.

“The fact it was with real company with real issues was the main thing I learned. You have to respect everything they ask you, and [apply it] in a short period of time,” says Valentin. He split his group into marketing, human resources and financial sub-teams.

Case studies on well-known companies, commonplace at business schools, are already public knowledge. Students may even know the results already. But live business cases are unpredictable and can rapidly change the case situation.

“That’s the main advantage: the fact that we stumbled into real projects,” says Valentin. “We had to respect delays, we had to respect the demands they asked and the fact that we had only six weeks was the main difficulty. A project that happened two years ago; [there are] no deadlines to respect. But we had six weeks to do the job, and that’s why we are really satisfied with our work.”

Results are not guaranteed, however. Schools must convince corporations to take on their students. Grenoble promises firms critical thinking and fresh ideas – but most importantly, closer ties with the business school itself.

Companies do not pay these students for their work on cases, which can last for months, but there are recruiting opportunities for those who excel.

“Certain students really show amazing potential. It’s a great way of identifying talent in a different way, because they [students] have to have empathy for what the client needs,” says Michelle. Grenoble graduates have been hired in the past, thanks to their experience on other live business cases. Michelin, the tyre manufacturer based in Clermont-Ferrand, employed several.

“They perform in a different way than in a classroom setting. These youngsters came up with a different solution than was expected,” Michelle explains.

The French companies looking to develop internationally get the best of both worlds. They work with international students that have acquired knowledge about French culture and the French market.

One of the biggest criticisms of MBA programs is that they are often long on theory but short on practical experience. But applying practical work before learning is crucial, says Michelle.

“Autonomy is important, but doing before learning the theory is a key. Because they need to make mistakes. That’s why a live case is so important.” 

Origins Of The Live Business Cases At Grenoble

For Grenoble, the die was cast when Marie-France Derderian, the program director of some of the school's Master's programs, lobbied for access to live businesses all year round. Most other schools have short live cases built into their curriculums. Grenoble already had a three-day session on a Harvard integrative case – but Marie-France wanted more.

Judith Bouvard, director of GGSB, saw the competitive advantage. Students have since been working with Greece, China and other emerging and European destinations, on several programs at the school.