13 Jan 2016

Students Dive into Global Immersion

Students with Prof. Karim Lakhani outside the home of Nelson Mandela in South Africa.

Figure out a new growth strategy for an established paint company in Mumbai or a new innovative offering for a furnishing retail chain in Casablanca, this January over 900 Harvard Business School students were engaged in tackling such business problems in emerging markets around the world. They were on the second module of Field Immersion Experiences for Leadership Development (FIELD), a required, three-module course for first-year MBA students. The year-long course provides students with the opportunity to put theory into practice, working in small teams on intensive projects to solve real world problems and create new business opportunities.

In the immersion portion of the second module (FIELD 2), students must complete a project that seeks to build their “global intelligence”- the ability to understand and operate a business in an unfamiliar context. In particular, over a period of eight days, teams are required to apply the tools of Design Thinking – customer observation, brainstorming, and prototyping – to develop new products and services for Global Partner companies located in a number of developing nations.

Senior Lecturer Andy Zelleke and Stephanie Galloway, Director of the Global Experience Office (GEO), tell us more about FIELD 2 and the impact it has on HBS students. Q: Can you describe FIELD 2 in numbers? Galloway: There were 157 FIELD Global Partners this month spanning 13 countries around the world. Together, they hosted more than 930 students, ranging in locations from China and Argentina to Turkey and Cambodia.

What is the academic purpose of FIELD 2? What do you expect students to learn that they can’t learn in the classroom?

Zelleke: FIELD 2 has three primary teaching objectives: enhancing students’ global intelligence; making them better at innovation, using Design Thinking; and providing valuable leadership and teaming experience as students grapple with real-world innovation challenges. The learning in FIELD 2 is very different from what they do in the classroom. The case method dramatically improves students’ ability to figure out what to do, as they repeatedly imagine themselves in the shoes of case protagonists facing imminent decisions. In FIELD 2, students themselves become the protagonists. In teams of peers, they’re charged with designing new products or service concepts for partner companies in, say, Indonesia. The heart of the course is the Global Immersion—an intensive, 8-day intensive experience in an emerging market with which they’ve had no meaningful prior experience. During this time in-country, they can focus like a laser on their team’s mandate, with no competing course work on their plate. Their immersion work couldn’t be more different from what they do in the classroom—it’s more exploratory and creative than analytical, it’s done in teams, and its degree of difficulty is heightened by the newness (for them) of the environment. It’s a great opportunity for students to learn about a country, its business culture, and its people, and often, most of all, about themselves.

Describe some of the challenges of planning FIELD 2 for January 2016?

Galloway: Our main challenge is to balance our tolerance for ambiguity and risk with our desire to provide the students with an authentic local experience where we haven’t over sanitized the program and simply recreate the HBS classroom in each of our locations.

Beyond that, many of our challenges are planning for things that are outside our control. Namely the weather, life events, and decisions made by consulates and embassies. With thirteen countries and students from more than sixty nationalities, each year we run into some very difficult combinations.

How is the curriculum structured for FIELD 2?

Zelleke: Before traveling to their immersion country in early January, FIELD 2 students have a number of classroom sessions—mostly in Batten Hall’s “hives,” which are innovative classrooms configured for small team work—plus a two-day, in-the-field experience we call “DASH.” The classroom sessions begin to introduce students to the immersion country context, the Design Thinking method, and the launch and management of high-performing teams. The DASH exercise provides a fun, intense Design Thinking experience—with teams observing and interviewing Boston consumers in order to better understand their needs, then ideating innovative product or service concepts designed to address those needs better than existing offerings. DASH is, in effect, a dry run for their immersion work, though in the familiar confines of Boston. Then in early January, in their immersion city, students’ time is mostly spent interacting with local consumers—watching them shop in malls, visiting them in their homes, interviewing them in health clinics and bus terminals—then proceeding through the rest of the Design Thinking cycle—ideating, prototyping and testing—to generate promising new products or service ideas to hand off to their local partner companies.

Can you talk about Design Thinking and how it allows the students to be challenged?

Zelleke: The beauty of Design Thinking is that it is fundamentally about developing empathy- how can you better understand the desires, needs, and pain points of a particular individual or group? This is something that can be applied almost anywhere, regardless of industry or immersion location. While FIELD 2 projects vary significantly, they each present an opportunity for our students to gain rich insights about the local market in their immersion location and the people who live there. Some projects may appear quite familiar to our students on the surface (e.g., coming up with services that would attract new customers to a coffee shop or determining how to maintain active memberships at a gym), but their challenge is to understand how the lives of local consumers may differ from their own, and how that impacts what those consumers may be looking for. In other cases, the project assignment may be unique to the local market and present a challenge that can be understood only by spending time on the ground. For instance, it would be difficult for our students to truly understand the needs of ‘unbanked’ consumers in Ghana or Cambodia without spending time with them on the ground. For instance, what are their needs and motivations? How can a business fulfill those demands?

FIELD 2 is now in its fifth year. What are some of the learnings from previous years? What have you done differently this year?

Galloway: Logistically, a key lesson for us has been to make travel preparation a partnership with the students. In the first few years of FIELD 2 we tried to do too much for the students, which was unnecessarily hard on the Global Experience Office team and too restrictive for the students. We booked student flights, and we fully supported them in their travels to and from their location, controlling when and how they arrived and departed. Our students are mostly seasoned travelers, and many did not need or desire this level of support. In the past two years, we have shared this responsibility with the students, allowing them to book and manage their own travel and arrive in country at any time prior to the program’s start. We still offer a fully supported option aligned with the program dates for students who prefer it. This change in approach felt very uncomfortable at first, but has resulted in a drastic drop in travel related issues (think 930+ students arriving in a 36 hour window centrally managed versus individuals managing their own arrival over at least a week’s time) and has increased the student’s engagement in planning for their experience. Last year fewer than ten students were late to their immersion. This year, fewer than five, and all for good reasons.

What do you frequently hear from students as their most positive takeaways? How are they changed by the program?

Galloway: During FIELD 2, our students have the opportunity to tackle issues as significant and varied as responsible food sourcing in China, access to healthcare in Indonesia, improved public sanitation in Ghana, and the importance of early childhood education in Brazil. One of the most positive takeaways for students after the immersion is how grateful they are not just for their own experience and learning, but for having had an opportunity to make a real difference in the country where they’ve chosen to travel.

Zelleke: Students often surprise themselves by how creative they can be in coming up with novel product and service ideas. They become better team members and more self-confident in their leadership on teams of peers. And for some, the most noteworthy changes are to themselves—they return from their immersion experiences more resilient, more adaptable, and more confident in their ability to successfully harness diverse teams’ talents while working through their challenges.

Faculty Andy Zelleke, Project Managers Walfred Arenales and Phillip Andrews, and students doing community service in Manila, Philippines

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