Experiential Learning: Better than the MBA Case Study?

Business schools are extending the MBA classroom to the real world, helping students hone skills, network and sometimes, land jobs

Alleviating the woes of ill children, sufferers of brain cancer and dodgy hips is not traditionally the preserve of MBA students. But for IMD Business School’s cohort in Lausanne, this is a staple of their program. 

They participated in the pan-school Debiopharm-Inartis challenge in April, to improve the lives of healthcare patients in Switzerland. The winners each year receive more than $25,000 to turn their novel idea into a startup. But for the IMD students, it was part of the curriculum. “You can’t learn innovation in a classroom,” says IMD professor Cyril Bouquet. 

During an “innovation week”, the MBAs took part in a dizzying mix of lectures and visits to healthcare facilities, to create a product concept, business plan and prototype it. Sandeep Sharma, an MBA candidate at IMD, who is Indian, developed with his team a prototype to address the mental agony children face being vaccinated. 

He says: “Stress caused by injections (needles) is common among toddlers and young teens. We used technology to gamify the experience by developing an augmented reality app to make the visit to the doctor more engaging and less stressful.” 

The experience helped him comprehend the potential of applying “design thinking” — an approach to solving problems that focuses on patients’ needs — to business. “I realized how many ideas we can generate by simply collaborating with each other,” says Sharma. “And, how these ideas can be developed into powerful solutions that can make a big impact on lives.” 

IMD MBA student Veronika Raszler, whose team developed a hip protection solution for the elderly, adds that the exercise strengthened her entrepreneurial muscles. “Being surrounded by brilliant startups, gathering feedback about our idea from industry experts, and seeing how tangibly it shaped the final outcome taught me life-long lessons on how diverse approaches can elevate an idea,” she says. 

The benefits of ‘learning-by-doing’ versus case studies

Business education has traditionally been imparted through case studies, in which students solve a challenge a company has faced, but theoretically in a classroom. The concept was pioneered by Harvard Business School about a century ago. Now, MBA students are increasingly working with organizations to help solve real problems, as they occur. 

At MIT’s Sloan School of Management in the US, for example, students take part in “Action Learning”, where the classroom is extended to the real world. Through 15 “Action Learning Labs”, students undertake a semester-long project in a business setting wherein theories are applied to hands-on practice. 

Working in teams, they assess a business problem, sometimes visiting the organization overseas, and come up with a structured approach to solving it. In one Lab, MIT Sloan MBAs worked with students from five top business schools in China, while students have also gone to India and Israel in other Labs, and have worked with companies including LinkedIn, eBay and Amazon. 

“The real world is not sanitized and structured into a neat case format,” says Urmi Samadar, director of the Action Learning Program at MIT Sloan.

“The purpose of management education is to prepare students for leadership roles that span team, disciplines, industries and regions; Action Learning is a very effective medium to do that,” she says. 

Like traditional MBA internships, the projects are a good way for students to test career options and make valuable professional connections — sometimes leading to full-time job offers from companies students have consulted. “Many students express that they had chosen to take a particular Action Learning Lab because of a career pivot they were considering or to have their first experience in an international business setting,” says Samadar. 

She adds: “Sometimes students are newly awakened to a career path in a different industry or setting that they hadn’t previously considered.” 

The difference between experiential learning and internships is that learning-by-doing sees students, usually, consult, rather than work for, companies. 

A taste of the real world

As the experiences are often cross-disciplinary, learning-by-doing is effective because it replicates better the workplace, with managers increasingly working across teams and geographies, according to Sadia Cuthbert, head of business development and projects at the UK’s Cambridge Judge Business School. 

The school runs a range of such learning experiences, including the part-time, six-week long Cambridge Venture Project (CVP), with students working as a team of consultants in a local business. The four-week Global Consulting Project (GCP) sees the MBAs solve strategy problems facing organizations, which they also consult. 

For these projects, the teams “are deliberately cross-disciplinary, with students from differing backgrounds all collaborating on projects which are often in a sector they haven’t worked in before,” says Cuthbert. 

“Many GCPs require students to work with offices around the world, and students gain experience working across geographies, just as they would when in full-time, permanent roles.” 

Business schools do not see experiential learning replacing case studies. Rather, they see it becoming an increasingly important addition to a business education. MBAs, then, should expect to pioneer more innovative healthcare solutions and solve the strategic problems faced by global corporations as part of their course. 


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