Putting MBA students into action
Blurb: Management professor Martin L. Marten's students weren't convinced about the value of strategic mapping -- until they tried it in a real business.

When Martin L. Martens was a student, one of his professors gave him an assignment that involved working with a local company to apply theoretical knowledge he had learnt in class.

The experience proved to be one of the most rewarding of his graduate studies and Martens, -- now a management professor at the John Molson School of Business,-- resolved that one day he'd give his students the same opportunity.

His chance came three years ago when he began teaching MBA students how to do strategic mapping, a sophisticated technique that is used to systematically document an organization's managerial knowledge.

"Strategic mapping is a bit technical and I got a lot of blank looks, during first couple of lectures," Martens' recalled. "But when the students realized they had to map a real company, their eyes began to light up."

Beyond teaching the use of an important managerial tool, Martens' idea of kicking MBA students into the real world, addresses one of the key complaints about MBAs today: that they are over-intellectualized bunch of techno-geeks.

That's not to say they aren't smart; MBA students today are among the brightest in any program. But they increasingly spring from staff functions in the specialized worlds of engineering, IT and finance. Less and less have the hands-on managerial experience one would expect from such an advanced credential.

According to Michael Kamel, one of Martens' students, there is nothing like getting out into the real world. "Management is an applied science," Kamel said. "You can study all the theory you want, but if you don't put it into practice it doesn't get you very far."

Kamel's four-man team's challenge, was to create a strategic map for OZ Communications, a local high tech firm that develops software that enhances cell phone functionality for clients such as AOL, Yahoo! and SonyEricsson.

By all accounts OZ Communications on a roll. Its software can be found on about 20 million mobile units as well as on the servers that they interact with. Late last year, VantagePoint Venture Partners announced a $36 million investment in OZ. The California based firm hopes that OZ can grab a big chunk of the U.S. cell phone middle-ware market, which is expected to quadruple during the next four years to U.S. $1.2 billion.

But in recent months, the OZ's key executives have been so engrossed with maintaining their technological edge, that until recently, strategic planning has fallen by the wayside.

To compile OZ's strategic map, Kamel's team --which included co-students Wine Mansfield, Jan Pasotto and Eleonora Peller,-- did extensive research about the company. This included in-depth interviews with five key executives, including Jean Regnier, its chief technology officer.

"We were lucky. They were a good group of students," Regnier said. "One of them even had software experience which made it much, because they understood the challenges we were facing."

The interviews were a key part of the process. Strategic mapping assumes that a company's managers and employees know a lot more than they think they know. The interviewing includes a significant brainstorming element, which serves to draw that knowledge out. It also gets managers personally involved in the planning, giving them a tangible stake in the outcome.

Once the interviews are done, the relevant information is mapped out on charts, and then the managers assemble to compare ideas about where the firm is going. The mapping depersonalizes the discussion process, since managers can now critique an idea on a chart, rather than the person presenting the idea.

According to Regnier, Kamel's group did a great job. "The team was well prepared. They helped our managers to generate a good discussion about our objectives and priorities," Regnier said.

The students were not expected to solve all of the challenges that emerged, such as how OZ could best tackle the European market or whether the company should be primarily demand- or technologically-driven. But according to Regnier, the strategic mapping process will serve as the basis of a workshop that the company's mangers will conduct in the near future.

Martens, --who sat quietly in the back of the room as his students briefed OZ executives,-- remains convinced that everyone emerged a winner. "Consultants tend to have a bias based on their expertise. You give them a hammer, and for them everything is a nail," he said with a laugh. "Students bring a more objective and fresher approach."

 

 

peter@peterdiekmeyer.com

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