By Mary Rodrique
Business leaders and educators across Michigan have joined forces in dozens of novel ways to better prepare students for careers evolving at warp speed.
On college campuses from metro Detroit to the Upper Peninsula, school administrators and industry CEOs are forging partnerships, staging competitions and developing curricula to give business graduates a leading edge in the new global economy.
At Michigan State University, one such initiative is the close partnership between the Eli Broad School of Business and IBM, which just opened a new Global Delivery Center on campus. The first of its kind in the country, the center is intended to provide innovative application development and support services, the goal being to modernize older and less efficient IT systems for state government agencies.
“The partnership has contributed to advancing our research and teaching,” says Professor David Closs, the John McConnell Chair of Business Administration in the university’s department of Supply Chain Management. “We’re seeing the need for students to solve problems over various disciplines. Take the recent peanut butter recall. It involves biology, agriculture, supply chain and law. How can we track and monitor? What safety precautions can be put in place? What are the major trade-offs? The IBM center understands the processes and provides cross functional perspective.”
The Michigan Economic Development Corp-oration estimates that the move by IBM to bring jobs and employees to the state as part of the new center will create up to 1,500 new direct and indirect jobs over the next five years, with 100 new direct jobs by June 2009.
Providing opportunities for professional networking and practical experience drove the Association for Corporate Growth of Western Michigan to launch its inaugural ACG Cup event this year.
The master’s level contest, designed to give MBA students real world business experience, drew teams from MSU, Grand Valley State, Western Michigan University and Davenport University to analyze a complex business case and recommend strategies to a panel of judges who are business leaders.
“Students get a taste of the real world interacting with true deal makers, giving them one-on-one time with individuals with limited time,” says Christine Moag, president of the West Michigan chapter of the Association for Corporate Growth. “This isn’t the polite classroom; anything can happen. There’s no one way to make a deal. These students can ask questions, interact and network. Also, on the other side, it shows the judges the talent here in west Michigan. It’s a great educational tool for us all.”
After the preliminary competition in January, the winning team from each university competed in a final round at Grand Valley, with the top team to be recognized with a reception, $5,000 scholarship and possession of the “cup” at the DeVos Place Convention Center in the Amway Grand Plaza hotel in Grand Rapids on March 18.
“To stay competitive in a global marketplace, we as a business community need to make it our priority to keep our next generation of leaders here in west Michigan,” says Birgit Klohs, president of The Right Place, Inc., a regional, nonprofit economic development company located in Grand Rapids. “I’m encouraged to see an organization like ACG take the lead on this initiative, providing these students a platform to showcase their talents to future employers.”
In a similar vein, the 2009 Ross Leadership Initiative Crisis Challenge pitted 16, four-person teams comprising University of Michigan MBAs against one another in a time sensitive, role playing exercise that tested students’ ability to cope under pressure.
In the scenario, a hypothetical audience of hostile stakeholders, including a faux press corps, sat in wait as students had just a few hours to prepare and respond to an evolving corporate dilemma.
“The real world is a very expensive teacher, so what we do is create experiences within the program that students can take advantage of without all of the costs,” says Sue Ashford, U-M associate dean for leadership programming. “The idea is we’re trying to produce students that aren’t just good business people, but have the ability to get others to go along with their ideas and the aspiration to really make a difference in their organizations. Our program is based on the belief that you learn through experience. That’s the way people learn something as intangible as leadership.”
As MBA participant Becca Brooke says of the 2009 competition: “It’s common to go into a business setting and have to work with VPs who may span different continents, who’ve never met or worked together before, to address a crisis in that moment. So I found the whole challenge to be very realistic.”
At Northern Michigan University’s Walker Cisler College of Business, an International IT Student Seminar helps students reach new heights. This year, 30 upper level technology students from Canada, Finland, Denmark and Spain came to Marquette for a week-long event that encourages learning about similarities and differences between academic programs and careers.
“In order to simulate a professional conference, the seminar occurs in a compressed time schedule - a four-day intensive week with day-long sessions consisting of morning presentations and afternoon workshops,” explains NMU Professor Sandra Poindexter. “This enables students to quickly reach the personal level of global perspective with international peers.”
Poindexter helped develop the program after attending a faculty exchange in Helsinki, Finland. For the past three years, a handful of NMU seniors have attended the seminar, co-sponsored by NMU and three colleges in Finland, Spain and Denmark. This year, it was NMU’s turn to host.
“It’s been very successful,” she says. “Students get a tremendous eye-opener in working with international teams. Every participant has come away awed by the experience.”
While encouraging students to think globally is one goal, educators use many other innovative techniques to prepare a next generation of business leaders. One such initiative is the MBA with a Design and Innovation Management concentration, offered by Ferris State University in partnership with the Grand Rapids-based Kendall College of Art and Design.
“What we do through these classes is lead business students to appreciate the role of design thinking,” says Kendall President Dr. Oliver Evans. “For example, on a national level, the professional association of graphic designers was approached by the government and asked to design ballots for voting that are less susceptible to error. Work on that project revealed the problem was not with the ballot itself, but the process of voting. The entire process needed to be reevaluated.”
The design concentration gives MBA students four classes to help them gain a new perspective, leading to a new way of thinking about a problem.
“It’s a relatively new idea to grab the design philosophy and implement it into the business model,” observes Evans, who points to similar programs at both Stanford University and Northwestern.
“The focus is to increase student’s awareness that the overriding consideration should be a person’s experience with a product or a service,” says Evans. “It’s about how you pose the right questions, create the right situation to look at that experience, and redesign it to become more efficient and contribute to the bottom line.”