Using research to solve real world problems

A course at Stern is giving students an insight into how business can be an agent for social change

Peter Henry: 'There is a false dichotomy between research and the real world’ © FT

In India, a country with a population of 1.2bn, fewer than 30 per cent of citizens have a passport, driver’s licence or other form of identification.

It may seem a minor point, except that the absence of these documents makes it difficult to apply for a bank account, obtain a mobile phone or even receive the government subsidies for education and food that individuals are entitled to.

But according to a new survey led by Arun Sundararajan, an associate professor of information, operations and management sciences at New York University’s Stern School of Business and a group of his students, that is changing. A government-sponsored project that began towards the end of 2010 to give every person in India a unique 12-digit ID number is showing signs of success. If enrolment continues according to projections, Prof Sundararajan reckons that about 300m citizens who previously did not have a portable ID will have one by the end of the year.

“It’s a moon-shot project,” says Prof Sundararajan. “It’s having a transformative impact on the lives of hundreds of millions of people.”

It is also, he hopes, a project that will have a transformative impact on the careers of the dozen MBA students who are working with him on the survey. The survey, which is analysing the impact of India’s Unique Identity project, is part of the Stern Consulting Corps programme.

SCC, an elective course now in its 10th year, began as a programme that placed students with local non-profits on 10-week project engagements. This year, for the first time, students worked on projects in emerging markets linked to faculty research. This new element provides students with vivid illustrations of how academic research can be used to solve real world problems.

“What [students] are gaining from this is an understanding of the potential of business to be an agent of social change,” says Prof Sundararajan. “It’s one thing to be exposed to examples of this in a textbook, it’s another to witness it first hand.”

As top schools strive to infuse their curricula with more hands-on learning experiences by adding overseas exchange programmes and class consulting projects in far-flung corners of the world, SCC stands out for its emphasis on research.

The new focus of the SCC programme reflects the increasing interest from MBA students in using their degrees to work on social policy issues. The programme is popular on campus: more than 100 students participated in the programme this past academic year and applications to the SCC rose 117 per cent this spring compared with last year.

Academic research is often accused of being ponderous, narrow and detached from the real world. But there is a new wave of research coming out of schools today that concerns how government and business can work together to solve big social problems, according to Professor Peter Henry, Stern’s dean.

There is also a growing recognition on the part of management faculty that the type of research they conduct about corporations has potentially broad applications for other kinds of organisations.

“There is a false dichotomy between research and the real world,” says Prof Henry. “Research can have a real impact.”

One group of students, for instance, worked on a business plan for a city that is being developed in Honduras. Because the city is a new concept, the business plan will have a direct effect on policy decisions in the country.

The students, under the supervision of Professor Paul Romer who heads the Urbanization Project, a research centre at Stern that focuses on urban growth and governance in the developing world, spent the semester devising potential scenarios for the city, such as population growth models and potential financial rules and regulations, as well as working up infrastructure estimates and writing policy briefs. Some of their findings were presented in a meeting Prof Romer had with Octavio Sánchez, chief of staff to the Honduran president.

“We’re getting students into the world through the lens of research,” says Prof Henry. “We’re giving students the chance to say, ‘I didn’t just take a set of classes. I built something’.”

Throughout the projects, students work closely with a faculty member and often develop the type of mentoring relationship that has typically been the province of PhD programmes. Teams also work with an outside mentor from a top-tier consulting company.

Students hone their analytical skills, but are also able to practise their professional responsibilities such as meeting a timeline and soliciting feedback from a client.

“The learning experience for the students was better than I expected,” says Prof Romer. “What they learnt was not just how to think abstractly about governance and fiscal policy – the kind of things you have to think about when you’re creating a new city – but also how will you work in teams, how will you divide tasks, what will you do when one sub-team gets stuck.”

The fact that students were working on a project with real world implications “lent more urgency to the group effort”, he says. “People are taking real decisions on [the students’ work]. A term paper doesn’t really matter. This goes out of the realm of a pretend exercise and makes it real.”

For students, the risk of working on such an engrossing project is that it can make other business school assignments seem dull or unworthy by comparison.

But Benjamin Wise, a student who worked on the Honduras project, says that it forced him to think about how to apply concepts learnt in the classroom.

“I’d be sitting in my corporate finance class on the edge of my seat because we were learning about a financial model that I couldn’t wait to plug in to [one of the models in] my project,” he says.

Prof Sundararajan says that spending a week in India was an eye-opening experience for his students.

“I could see them immersed in the context. They gained a clearer understanding of the breadth of vision and they could see what the problem was.

“This is the kind of immersive experiential learning that alters the worldview of students.”

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