We are living in transitioning times. Authoritarian rulers, COVID-19 pandemic, political uncertainty and changes have affected internationalization in higher education a lot.
By Zoe Kourounakou
Director International Office
Alba Graduate Business School
Internationalization is a necessary means of “self-transformation”. Contact with international students enables people to see the world from different angles, to reach beyond their own backgrounds and to learn about new countries and cultures. Internationalization means training students to approach their own cultures, texts, and traditions in different ways and through comparative perspectives. It helps people to see beyond themselves. It helps them to grow, to embrace diversity and thus become more innovative and efficient in their workplace and their community.
Developing such a mindset for the future executives and the catalysts of change is not an easy job. Business schools are urged to promote internationalization and to create a learning environment full of international experiences for their students. Exchange programs, recruitment of international full time students, in house international activities, field trips abroad, international internships, international double degrees, are some of the initiatives that work towards this direction. Students have plenty of options. But do they actually work or do students see school’s international activities as opportunities of holiday and island hoping? Unless these activities include a structured and well assessed learning process, the impact is questionable.
How about students solving a strategic problem for a small business in an emerging market or for an SME in a country that struggles with financial crisis? Imagine a group of graduate students working as consultants for a foreign company. A Field Consulting project abroad.
Five years ago, Alba Graduate Business School launched a new international project for partner business schools who wanted to engage their graduate students with consulting projects. Back in 2015, Greece was still in the middle of the financial crisis and Greek SMEs struggled to survive, to expand operations abroad, to innovate. US partner schools were the first to reach out with specific requests to identify Greek cases that would be the ideal learning projects for their students. Kelley School of Management, Weatherhead School of Management, Harvard Business School, Ohio University were looking for such projects in emerging markets or countries that faced severe economic problems. They knew that the learning impact would be tremendous for their students. They knew that graduate students need to develop thorough understanding of the global economy and they need to get involved in real business challenges in diverse business environments. They need to understand the real problems that companies face and to put their effort in solving them. They wanted to push their students to provide value to the local companies by contributing promising, innovative ideas to help shape a new product, service, or customer experience. These ideas would derive from their interactions with local customers, their own creative thinking, and the “fresh perspective” they bring as outsiders. Student learning is the primary objective. But local companies gain a lot as well during this process.
Soon after the US partner schools, UK Business Schools and French schools followed. Global Consulting Field trips seemed to be much more effective than the traditional incoming field trips that included only lectures, company visits and some cultural visits. Students had the chance to interact with diverse and different cultures on actual projects, putting learning in a higher level.
Identifying Greek companies with good business cases wasn’t hard for a well established business school in the Greek business community, like Alba. Alba Hub for Entrepreneurship and Development has access to family businesses, start-ups, incubators, collaborative workspaces and all kind of SMEs Associations in the country. Alba conducts a big number of executive development programs to Greek companies and eventually there is cumulative knowledge on training and business needs. Greek SMEs and start-ups embraced the project and felt that this was a win win procedure for them. They invested their time wisely, in order to have access to global market research data, to global best practices, to fresh innovative ideas, to different national market insights.
The Field Consulting projects are selected based on maximum impact, following a detailed analysis of the business needs and student team skills. The objective is to deliver a high quality, professional consultancy report that the business can incorporate in its strategy. The projects start with the student teams initiating their engagement with client SMEs, interacting with their client remotely to deepen the consulting relationship, scope the project, complete research, and outline work to accomplish. Clients require a personal relationship with students before they are willing to discuss the details of their business and organization. Building client relationship is a rich learning procedure for the students. Alba facilitates the establishment of this relationship in collaboration with incoming school faculty supervisor. The faculty supervisor is there to ensure frequent contact between students and their clients, to set specific deliverables and to observe that all learning objectives for the students are covered. Each team is closely coached. Material, deadlines, and interaction are purposefully sequenced to shepherd students through a deliberative process of action-based learning. Expectations for the quality of the client deliverable are very high. Students should consider very important the development of a personal relationship with their clients outside of formal discussion about the project. They must quickly become comfortable with amorphous elements of the client engagement. They come across with cultural differences, with different norms, with diversity. Emotional struggle around learning how to scope a complicated problem, identify the information that needs to be collected, and derive actionable solutions is a natural part of the project. For several months, teams work on their projects and prepare for their final trip to Athens. The goal is for each team to finish a good percent of their work before their arrival. The remaining work requires data and perspective that can only be gained while on site with the client.  This work takes place during their visit in Greece. They meet with the company, but also with Alba graduate students. Alba organizes a special workshop where Alba students play the role of the local consultant to the different teams. To be more specific, Alba students rotate in round tables every 30 minutes and provide their consulting to the projects teams. After all these learning steps, teams are ready for their final presentation to the client. Finally, students are ready to deliver their report and present their work. The feeling they get after having developed a meaningful product/service/solution for a company that was in great need of this, is truly rewarding.
“In Greece, the culture is significantly higher context and drives a very different business culture. It was difficult to step back from my normal cadence and have more personal and contextual conversations with both the client and vendors. However, after adjusting I found it to be very rewarding to feel a personal connection to these individuals that I barely knew by name prior. It is a completely different train of thought that I enjoyed on a personal level.” A student from Kelley School of Business wrote.
A student at the Weatherhead School of Management shared also his experience: “We got paired with some great entrepreneurs to help them with their business, this was a great learning and teaching experience for both parts and it made this a very special and unforgettable experience.”
Global Field Consulting Trips have a great impact on the learning process. They open students’ minds and become life time experiences. Experiences to include in their CV and share in a job interview. Global Field Consulting Trips transform people’s mentality. They transform people.
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