Experiential learning, Projects, or how comfortable is the comfort zone

The business school has been very quiet over the last four weeks which forms the Easter break. However, for the MBAs, this is no holiday as every student is involved in their Global Consulting Project (GCP), which lasts for about 4 weeks and involves teams of 4-5 students working with organisations to solve an ongoing problem that the organisation faces.

The GCP, along with the smaller-scale Cambridge Venture Project (CVP), has been a mainstay of the Cambridge MBA for several years now. During that time, we have seen projects hosted in the UK and across the world. Some students have gotten more out of the projects than others — some of the more career-minded ones have impressed their project sponsors sufficiently to get internships or job offers at the end of their GCPs. Almost every student has gained a deeper understanding of a particular issue or sector that they felt passionate enough to devote 4-5 weeks of their time to.

It is easy to underestimate the amount of resources that the school puts into organising the GCP. It is a mandatory part of the programme and we have one full-time member of staff who does such a great job of sourcing projects that every year, there are more projects than student teams and she has the delicate task of talking to organisations whose projects were not chosen by students. Students are, within bounds, free to form their own groups and/or source their own projects and this sometimes creates tensions within groups or with the MBA team who has to ensure that each project is substantial enough to merit being a GCP. This last point is important because the GCP is assessed by the sponsoring organisation and faculty, which again represents considerable investment on our part. Alums are a great help in finding or creating projects. This year, one alum is sponsoring a project in the UK looking at mobile technology solutions for investment banks; another contributed two projects in the Middle East; and one alum has a team of MBAs working for him in LA to market an upcoming movie project.

I was thinking about all of this while reading a series of articles. Firstly, Harvard has started a programme where every one of their MBA students will be assigned to a project outside the US. You can probably guess from what I’ve written that I don’t share the author’s gushing praise that this is “the boldest experiment in graduate education”, and if anything I find it amazing that for an initiative that is supposed to take “students out of their comfort zones”, Harvard made so many logistical preparations for their students, including hiring and vetting the drivers, and checking on the hotel rooms. It’s a far cry from how our students have to negotiate travel and accommodation with their sponsors and in some projects involving Not for Profits in developing countries, travel could mean being squeezed into a local bus and accommodation could be a sleeping bag in a hut. You might think that I am just jealous at the gulf in resources (and part of me is envious) but I am proud of our students who feel so passionate about their projects that they are willing to spend valuable time in surroundings which presumably, would not pass the HBS test.

But the more important issue to me is why do schools and MBA programs go to all this trouble to organise these overseas trips? A recent HBS blog talks about the importance of competing on know-why and while I don’t agree with the entire logic in the article, I do think there is a lot of merit in organisations, including business schools, understanding the “why” of what they do. For Cambridge, the GCP is an important part of the MBA because it allows students to gain an in-depth understanding of a particular industry or company, and apply their experience and learnings on the MBA in an environment that comes as close to real-life as possible. The GCP lasts for 4 weeks because that is the amount of time that is needed to gain a deep understanding of issues, develop creative solutions and test those solutions for their practicality. Don’t get me wrong, there are situations where a one-week consultancy works, but in such cases, it is usually because students bring a wealth of experience to the table, or the scope of the problem is quite narrow.

But students also learn a lot of intangibles through the process of approaching the GCP. Many students source their own projects, which involves finding a sponsoring organisation, gaining the organisation’s trust to share sensitive data and information, managing the client’s expectations (there will always be some organisations that want our students to help the conquer the world), overcoming countless logistical obstacles, and most difficult of all, getting 3-4 other students excited about your project that they would be willing to spend 4 weeks with you. That process has taught our students more about leadership, relationship building and problem solving than anything they could have learnt in the classroom.

I am always very impressed with the student-sourced projects. Last year, one team travelled to rural India and Nepal to develop solutions for access to clean water. This year, one group is in Sri Lanka developing micro-finance solutions; three groups are in China working on new energy finance, infrastructure finance and electric vehicles. This is not to say that physical distance travelled is a predictor of a good project. One of the best projects last year was based in London where a group of students studied the internal costing mechanisms for a global reinsurance company and presented their findings to the supervisory board. This year, several teams are working with Cambridge-based VC investors.

Not everything goes well during a GCP. There will inevitably be groups where inter-personal dynamics just don’t work out well, and there will be groups that, despite their best efforts, fail to manage their clients’ expectations (this is usually the case when clients who want to conquer the world are told they can’t). On our part, we often need to manage student expectations of their responsibilities and the benefits of the GCP.  Not every student will get a job directly from their GCP; not every student can be in the same team as their friends; and not every student will get the perfect GCP that combines a challenging topic with lots of air miles. In fact, some of the most interesting and challenging projects this year have been within the UK. What we can guarantee is that with the right frame of mind, students will learn an immense amount from their GCPs.

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4 Responses to Experiential learning, Projects, or how comfortable is the comfort zone

  1. Great article Conrad, I really enjoyed it. I’m looking forward to being about of the GCP in the not too distant future.