Learning From Experience
Monday, October 7, 2019
BY KATE WESTLUND
Putting theory to practice is a core part of the University of Minnesota’s business school legacy, pre-dating the catchphrase “experiential learning” and even the Carlson School itself.
According to the Business School at Minnesota’s inaugural course bulletin in 1919, students would be challenged to “analyze business situations accurately” to create “practical working plans.” Early enrollees were also encouraged to gain real-world experience. Accounting majors, for example, commonly worked for Twin Cities firms while pursuing their degrees.
The school’s ties to local business were especially important in the late 1920s and ’30s. During the Great Depression, the focus was primarily on the value of the faculty and their research, notably the Employment Stabilization Research Institute, which was formed to study everything from the banking industry to the long-term effects of unemployment. An emphasis on the value that students could add—and gain—from these business relationships wouldn’t come until decades later, in the 1960s.
Sending Students into the Field
In 1961, Quantitative Analysis Professor Gary Andrew developed the Field Projects model, in which small teams of students were placed within local, participating businesses.
“It was an outstanding opportunity for the students to practice some of the responsibilities they would have in their post-graduation careers,” says Norm Chervany, professor emeritus of Information and Decision Sciences and Supply Chain and Operations, who led the program from roughly 1970 to 1980. “It was equally outstanding for the supporting organizational community. Participating companies would have the energies of four or five students and their faculty advisor focused on a critical problem.”
The program continued on a quarterly basis for nearly four decades.
New Century, New Enterprises
The Field Projects model served as a foundation for the Carlson School’s experiential learning programs, made possible by the strong relationships already established with the business community. In 1998, the Golden Gopher Growth Fund launched thanks to the gift of an alum. The fund was run by MBA students and, unlike many similar classes, had actual fiduciary responsibilities, investing in micro- and small-cap companies in the Twin Cities region. This setup served as a modern-day predecessor to the Carlson Enterprise programs, which rolled out in the early 2000s.
Like the Field Projects, the Enterprise programs task student teams (mostly MBA students, but open to some BSB degree-earners) with addressing the challenges of real-world businesses. The programs range from one to four semesters in length and focus on four distinct business functions. Students can choose to participate in one or two of the following four Enterprises: Brand, Consulting, Funds, and Ventures.
- Carlson Brand Enterprise—students apply strategic and analytical marketing concepts to complex business problems at top companies.
- Carlson Consulting Enterprise—students serve as management consultants to top companies, tackling their business challenges.
- Carlson Funds Enterprise—students manage approximately $35 million in assets from real investors who expect real returns.
- Carlson Ventures Enterprise—students put their entrepreneurialism to the test as they identify opportunities for, and evaluate existing, new ventures.
An Essential Component of the Carlson School Education
Experiential learning has long set the Carlson School experience apart and is a large draw for prospective MBA and business undergraduates alike.
Especially for students looking to change careers, the firsthand experience gained through the Enterprise programs is critical. “I wanted a hands-on learning experience to help me feel comfortable about the transition from finance to consulting. The Carlson Consulting Enterprise gave me a huge opportunity to not only learn the concepts but to put them to the test within a safe environment as I prepared for a future career,” says Alyssa Callister, ’15 MBA and director of strategic agility at Vans, a shoe and apparel company.
The enduring connection to the local business community is also noteworthy. “The Enterprise programs are uniquely possible in Minnesota, where we have a high concentration of Fortune 500 companies,” says Ashley Ver Burg Soukup, ’18 MBA and associate brand manager at General Mills.
Integrating Cases with Professional Practice
Outside of the Enterprise programs, students have many other opportunities to put their learned skills to the test, whether through case competitions, study abroad via the Carlson Global Institute, or participation in the Carlson Analytics Lab.
Similar to the Enterprise programs, the Carlson Analytics Lab partners businesses with students to solve 21st-century business challenges through data. Just as if they were hiring outside consultants, companies that work with the Analytics Lab incur a cost for the work. Over the 14-week course, students meet regularly with clients to define the project and its goal, conduct a rigorous analysis of data, deliver regular reports on progress, and present their findings at the end of the semester.
The work done at the Analytics Lab provides insight to clients that they can use going forward to improve business processes. For instance, students worked with Land O’Lakes to analyze the sentiment of customers’ online reviews of animal-feed products to compare how it aligned with the language that the company was using. Findings from this project allowed Land O’Lakes to modify marketing efforts.
“We have internal teams that do this type of work all the time,” says Teddy Bekele, vice president of Ag Technology at Land O’Lakes, who oversaw the Analytics Lab project. “But it’s always more interesting to get a different set of eyes to look at these problems—Analytics Lab students can apply lenses that internally we may not look at, or we just have blind spots, because we’re not used to thinking a particular way.”
"The process is a lot messier than a case study, just like the real world, and that makes the result much more rewarding."
Defining the Carlson School Brand
The experiential learning model has proven so successful in the MBA program that the Carlson School is embedding the same type of work into its MS programs as well. Now, students earning an MS degree will take a full-semester, project-based course.
“We view this as the next step in the evolution of the Carlson School brand,” says Phil Miller, Assistant Dean of MBA and MS Programs. “Experiential learning is at the core of providing students with the real-world tools they need to succeed in business.” Ver Burg Soukup agrees. “Carlson’s experiential learning programs put the knowledge you gain through case studies into practice. The process is a lot messier than a case study, just like the real world, and that makes the result much more rewarding.”
This article appeared in the Fall 2019 alumni magazine
The Carlson School is celebrating its centennial. In this issue, we examine our storied history (and the people that made it possible) and look forward to the next 100 years of excellence.