Learning by Doing:
Whether in developing countries or in Silicon Valley, Haas Students gain real-world skilsl through experiential learning.
by Marguerite Rigoglioso
In the jungles of Borneo, Indonesia, an eco-business drama with global ramifications is taking place. Farmers earn much more money selling timber than rattan, a bamboo-like plant used to make furniture. That means they are hacking down the rainforest at an alarming rate. Can a viable business co-op be set up that will allow them to pool their rattan and sell it to furniture manufacturers at a high enough price to keep them from decimating the forest itself? This was the challenge four Berkeley MBA students faced last summer as a part of the Haas School’s International Business Development (IBD) course. Even more challenging was the fact that the students – Lindsay Daigle, David Hall, Matilde Kamiya, and Toshi Okubo – had to travel to Borneo, themselves, to figure it out. Witnessing the harsh reality of farmers’ lives, working with limited data, managing language barriers, and staying cool in scorching heat were all part of the package.
Learning doesn’t get more “experiential” than that. Haas prides itself on plying graduate and undergraduate students with many such opportunities to apply classroom learning to real-life business situations. IBD, the Management of Technology Program, the Center for Responsible Business, the Master’s in Financial Engineering – these and other programs and courses expose students, through class projects and fellowships, to the tough lessons they will encounter as future business leaders. And, says Dan Sullivan, interim full-time MBA director, at least 50 to 70 percent of full-time MBA electives use hands-on projects, which almost always means team projects – another important aspect of experiential learning.
“Having the chance to bring into the field the theory and tools they’ve learned only weeks and months before is an indispensable learning experience for students,” says Sebastian Teunissen, adjunct professor and executive director of the Clausen Center for International Business and Policy, who teaches the IBD course. “The field work is gratifying and profoundly affects their lives.”
International Business Development, now in its 13th year, focuses on the “overseas” experience, sending 60-70 students in small teams for three weeks each summer to work with clients on consulting projects in various countries. In addition to helping Borneo farmers, students have advised an orphanage in Mexico on revenue-creating activities, developed a business plan for the sustainable expansion of family-planning clinics in India, created a marketing strategy for a Finnish computer maker, and provided business expertise to scores of organizations all over the world. Evening and Weekend MBA students also get a taste of the “real” through two-week summer trips abroad that expose them to the inner workings of companies in other countries.
Closer to home, MBA students and undergraduates work directly with American firms as a part of the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) course. For eight to nine weeks, small teams serve as consultants to for-profit public and private companies, applying their analytical and research skills to live projects with a “corporate responsibility” theme.
As part of their CSR project, for example, undergraduates Linda Pham, Luyang Jiang, and Elaine Pang researched for Deloitte whether companies that engage in corporate social responsibility boast superior financial performance. An MBA team helped Hewlett-Packard’s efforts to be an exemplary global citizen by developing recycling, reuse, material innovation, and energy conservation initiatives with HP’s Research and Development team.
The Master’s in Financial Engineering Program, which provides students with a one-year graduate degree from the Haas School, sponsors challenging internships in quantitative finance for three months each fall. These include projects in areas such as building and testing financial models, conducting statistical research, and evaluating portfolio risk.
Last fall, MFE student Lavanya Viswanathan flew out to Manhattan to work for Goldman Sachs, where she developed and implemented analytical models to price new client derivative securities. “It was thrilling to do innovative research and then apply that research to very real and imminent practical needs,” said Viswanathan. “Without hands-on experience, what you gain from the classroom is mere book learning. Working in a fast-paced business environment forces you to deal with real-world decisions and the tradeoffs necessary to produce quality products in a timely manner.”
The Management of Technology Program, which draws on faculty from Haas, the College of Engineering, and the School of Information Management and Systems, similarly offers hands-on opportunities through fellowship programs. China Fellows, for example, get a chance to learn about technology, business, and the rapid development of China’s high-tech economy in a course that culminates in a trip to that country. This summer, MOT, in collaboration with the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, sent its first UN Fellows to research technology solutions to public health, energy, and education issues in Africa, Asia, and South America.
Even the core MBA course Organizational Behavior has every student conduct an organizational audit of the firm of his or her choice. Small teams spend five intensive days gathering data about how well an organization is functioning. They then provide the firm with a written report detailing suggestions for improvement. “The audit usually persuades even the most skeptical students that OB principles are critical to managerial effectiveness,” says Haas Assistant Professor Pino Audia.
The lessons students take away from such first-hand experiences are often indeed profound. On their online journal (http://www.berkeley.edu/ news/students/2003/borneo/1.shtml), the IBD team in Borneo wrote: “We had envisioned massive rattan fields and sprawling plantations, not the 30-foot-long rattan canes wildly entangled among the trees deep in the forests. We pictured men armed with electric chainsaws clearing the field, not men in flip-flops using knives to cut down one cane at a time.
“We quickly learned that many of the best practices commonly employed by businesses in the developed world were less applicable in this environment. What we found transferable, however, were the various strategic frameworks. By taking our clients through the frameworks, we were able to help them better analyze the situation, organize their ideas, and identify holes and inconsistencies.”
No doubt the Borneo farmers, the Indonesian rainforest, and the citizens of our big blue planet will benefit greatly from their efforts.
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