The tension in the room is such that you can actually see knuckles whiten, claims Jim Pulcrano as he describes IMD’s “discovery” project in Silicon Valley, where EMBA students pitch businesses to venture capitalists. Except that they are not pitching their own businesses, but the companies of five, equally nervous Swiss high-tech entrepreneurs.

“The entrepreneurs are present, but not able to say anything – I don’t even introduce them,” says Pulcrano, EMBA executive director at the Swiss business school, who also flies his students to Mumbai and Shanghai for similar projects. “It is very high stress and some of the students don’t sleep very much before. No one wants to fail.”

Working with a start-up developing biotech coatings for implantable medical devices was “like nothing I would ever experience in a large multi-national company like mine”, admits Mark Pattenden, an EMBA graduate of the Lausanne-based school who is vice-president of manufacturing at Shell Downstream, part of the oil group, in Houston, Texas.

“But the benefit to me and my company was learning how to foster an entrepreneurial mindset within our company, develop and commercialise ideas and technologies and how to look through a different lens with regard to technical and commercial risk. I also learnt what it means to be on the other side of the fence when a big company comes along and wants to buy your company or your idea.”

IMD’s EMBA is one of the most project-intensive programmes around – aside from the three “discovery” expeditions and a personal leadership assignment, students must complete six projects within their own companies by the end of the one-year course.

“It’s messy,” concedes Pulcrano. “There’s no way I can predict what’s going to come out of each assignment. It’s one of the reasons why most other schools don’t do it this way, because as an academic, you’re not in control. And it’s very resource intensive – 50 students doing company assignments, each with up to 20 different deliverables to be read and evaluated by two markers. It would certainly be a lot easier to just give them a 30-page case study that contained all the answers.”

And yet, EBMA students are increasingly aware that devising the right project and executing it well can fast-forward their careers, particularly if it is a project that gives them a greater profile in their own organisation. “Students tell us the projects are the most valuable part of the programme for them,” says Pulcrano. “Their learning gets pushed and stretched in a way it wouldn’t if they were just doing case studies they didn’t care about.”

At Insead, the international business school, students complete a large single-company-based project to conclude their programme. Peter Zemsky, who teaches the core competitive strategy module, says project work embodies the partnership between school and employer. “Company projects are amazing opportunities for the students to bring all of the knowledge and hard work at Insead to the benefit of their organisation,” says Prof Zemsky. “Part of the challenge for students is finding the project that will give them maximum visibility inside the company.

“Most are in senior roles, and so have access to some really interesting problems – our projects range from a strategy to meet the challenge of new entrants to an industry, to optimising a supply chain, or trying to overcome skills shortages. But whatever the topic, integrating the knowledge they’ve gained from a top business school to solve real problems helps many gain recognition in their companies.”

Choosing the right project – one that balances the needs of your organisation with the requirements of your academic tutors – is challenging. There is a balance to be struck between ambition and workload, cautions Pulcrano, whose students have six company projects that apply their learning in marketing, finance, organisational design, human resources, strategy and execution. “They could choose to do all six projects on six different areas of a company, all outside their area of responsibility. That would be fantastic experience, but such a steep learning curve that workload would increase exponentially.”

Alternatively, students can decide to do all the projects within their own department, but their learning would be much narrower and diminished. Those whose EMBA coincides with a large corporate initiative, such as a company acquisition or merger, sometimes find it helpful to carve out all six from the same initiative, says Pulcrano. “In general I advise that they do maybe two projects in their own area of responsibility, and three or four in other areas.”

At Insead, Prof Zemsky says he would like to see leadership development feature more prominently in EMBA projects. “As much as there is an analytical element to these projects, there is also a huge human and leadership dimension to the problems they’re trying to solve,” he says. “We’re keen to see that reflected in action items that are not only analytically sound, but recommendations that can actually move an organisation.”

Pulcrano says IMD is pondering how it can better prepare its EMBA students for the unplanned. “We’re trying to figure out if there’s a way these company projects can force them to work more in a crisis mode – and give them a skill set that works in a world that doesn’t always stick to the agenda in their iPhone.”

The oilman

As vice-president of the oil-field services of Russian energy giant TNK-BP, Evgeny Bulgakov might have been forgiven for trying to engineer a different outcome to his EMBA company project. The performance-management tool he created while studying at Insead, the international business school, gave his employer the necessary evidence to exit this business.

At the time, TNK-BP’s oil-field services business employed roughly 60,000 people in 82 different legal entities, providing internally and externally supplied services worth more than $2bn per year.

But there was little transparency or objectivity regarding its performance. Bulgakov created a system for measuring the performance of contractors in service sectors such as drilling. He used specially designed scorecards, algorithms for analyses of data and generated benchmark and progress reports.

“It dramatically improved the transparency of the in-house service business, enabled us to prioritise our restructuring efforts and assured the quality of divestment decisions for our own service companies,” says Bulgakov. “It also provided a basis for efficiency-improvement planning with regard to external contractors.”

For Bulgakov, the project tested what he had learnt about organisational behaviour, finance, competitive and industry analysis and accounting. Synchronising the milestones required by Insead with the natural pace of the project was, he admits, a challenge. But he valued the opportunity to discuss his work with faculty and EMBA colleagues. “To explain what your project means and what problems it solves forces you to decode corporate language, and convert your cumbersome jargon into clear and concise messages.”

Now vice-president of a subsidiary that delivers more than 40 per cent of TNK-BP’s crude production, Bulgakov recently found himself assisting a colleague with his EMBA project. “What I found revealing was that even though I consider myself an expert in the field of his project, I learnt a lot, frankly. EMBA students and their projects deliver lots of value.”

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