EMBA projects: Opportunity to get to grips with a real-life issue

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When Hans De Gusseme enrolled in 2002 on the EMBA at Shanghai’s China Europe International Business School (Ceibs), his employer and sponsoring company had a little local difficulty that it wanted him to help solve.

North of Shanghai at Suzhou is Picanol Suzhou Textile Machinery (PST), part of Belgian-based weaving machine maker Picanol. The factory had been making the same machine for about 10 years, says Mr De Gusseme: a product that was losing its competitiveness and “slowly dying”.

PST needed a new strategy based around new products, and Mr De Gusseme’s main project on the EMBA was to find the answer. Using the tools learnt on the course, he did the market research, analysed what technologies customers needed and how much they would pay, and came up with a plan based around two new machines.

One of these, an airjet weaving machine, is already on the market, and Mr De Gusseme, who is now customer relationship team manager for Picanol in China, says the estimates in his project on pricing and specification were spot on. The only thing that slipped a bit, he says, was the timetable, showing that manufacturing realities cannot always be predicted accurately in an academic project.

EMBA projects such as Mr De Gusseme’s, stretching over as as much as a year of a two-year course and very often based on a specific business issue for the student’s sponsoring company, are considered a core part of the EMBA at most business schools, although there are some exceptions in the US (see sidebar).

Mel Foster’s project was very different. Her 18-month long EMBA at London Business School began in January 2005, and last autumn she did an elective on managing change, which she found to be one of the most interesting courses on the programme.

Ms Foster was working then in GlaxoSmithKline’s nutritional healthcare business, best known for its Ribena and Lucozade brands. The unit had developed a new strategy and changed its vision, she says, and after discussions with senior managers and her mentor at GSK – an LBS alumna – it was agreed she would do a project on managing cultural change.

“We wanted to understand how we could gain the participation of the workforce and take [the new vision] from being an idea that was among a group of senior managers and start to embed it in ways of working – whether you’re a sales rep or a production worker,” says Ms Foster.

The great thing about a big project, she says, is the opportunity to explore an issue “in great depth, see it through and get your head around practically applying an idea...talking to real managers in a real organisation.”

Ms Foster has now been promoted to director for finance and planning in GSK’s consumer healthcare division in Japan, a job which she thinks might have taken three or four more years to get without her EMBA. Some of the work in her project was directly implementable by her old business unit, she says, and other parts were longer-term and would require more work.

These two assignments at Ceibs and LBS may sound like chalk and cheese, but with some schools taking in hundreds of EMBA students a year, the variety of their choices for their main project is bound to be immense,

There are some common criteria, however. Liang Neng, director of the Ceibs EMBA programme, says there are two main guidelines. First, projects have to be related to a practical, business-level issue, not an issue at industry/government level. Secondly, says Prof Liang: “Students have to apply the theory and the tools they learn in the programme to address this practical issue.”

Ideas for projects get rejected usually because they are too broad – a student, for example, proposes a study that is pitched at industry level – or sometimes because the proposal is for a purely theoretical project.

Ensuring that the academic requirements of the project are satisfied as well as the sponsoring company’s, is vital, agrees Fiona Lennoxsmith, who oversees and advises EMBA students at LBS on their main projects.

“The key thing we point out again and again is that they have to write a report that shows they’ve been at the school and learnt – it mustn’t be a report thay they could have written before they came,” she says.

For sponsoring companies, the key benefit of the main project is that they receive a piece of work that constitutes an alternative to bringing in a consultancy – written by someone with knowledge of the company through being an employee.

“A lot of companies really appreciate that,” says Ms Lennoxsmith, “and students very much enjoy being given the access that consultants often get but employees often don’t.”

Mr De Gusseme says that, in the case of the textile industry, an external consultant would take a huge amount of time to learn about the industry and may never get to the core of the business.

For him, too, there was the added advantage of having co-students doing similar projects for other manufacturers of products that, like Picanol’s, span a wide range of complexity and price. A Swiss classmate, for example, was doing a project for Schindler, the Swiss lift manufacturer.

Often, says Ms Lennoxsmith, it is part of the student’s contractual agreement with their sponsoring company that the main project should be directly related to the company.

Occasionally, however, things work out differently. Prof Liang tells of one group of four EMBA students at Ceibs who came up with an idea during the programme – for a high-class design and decorating company – and devoted their project to researching the human resources and strategic implications of the idea, applying the tools they had learnt.

A considerable amount of work goes into planning and executing the project. At Ceibs, the process starts around midway through the two-year programme, when all the functional parts of the course have been finished. Students attend a seminar on how to do a business plan, then over the next two months they write a research proposal.

Once a faculty member has approved the idea, it could go through two drafts, with faculty giving comments and feedback, and about two months before graduation students have to give an “oral defence” of the project. Just preparing for that might take two to four days, says Prof Liang.

At LBS, the project normally takes two terms worth of writing, and is equivalent to two courses out of about 20 that students normally take.

The writing of the project is not a huge task in itself – at 5,000 to 7,500 words it is shorter than a typical undergraduate dissertation – but there is a huge amount of work behind it – probably about 120 hours, says Ms Foster of her project.

Amid the huge variety of projects, it is difficult to generalise about trends, although sometimes the rise or fall in popularity of a particular type of project does seem to mirror wider changes in business priorities.

Last year at LBS, says Ms Lennoxsmith, there were quite a few projects in which students looked at whether their companies should be considering offshore outsourcing. This year there are fewer such projects, although still one or two, she says.

Themes based around company structuring, strategic positioning or potential new business areas are very common, says Ms Lennoxsmith.

Cultural change is quite popular, she says, as it gives students a great opportunity to explore their organisation more fully than their regular role might allow.

At Ceibs, where in the past there tended to be more projects in human resource management issues, lately the focus has been more on newly-formed business sectors in China, says Prof Liang. These include education and healthcare, which are still subject to government regulation but are in the process of being opened up, creating business and operational issues such as Chen Lixin, president of Beijing Royal Hospital, considered in his EMBA at Ceibs.

Other projects, says Prof Liang, are related to the new phenomenon of Chinese firms going abroad, or linked to multinational companies coming to China.

As the projects completed by Mr De Gusseme and Ms Foster have shown, companies are generally pleased with the results, even if with more complex projects immediate implementation is not possible, or necessarily the point.

Sometimes, says Ms Lennoxsmith, the school hears of progress in implementing the project even before the student has graduated.

Students may also be asked to present their results at board level, or sent to conferences to talk about their project, suggesting they have hit the right note with their employers.

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