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Johnson’s Immersion Programs

Innovating B-School Pedagogy

Business school is a laboratory for problem solving where aspiring executives are trained to make organizations more efficient, manage risk, and develop new ways to meet society’s needs. They are trained to manage a wide variety of business tasks such as introducing better detergents or MP3 players, running a theme park, bringing life-saving medicines to market, or establishing micro-lending to improve living standards in the third world.

Regardless of where students use their MBAs, the tools learned in a graduate program provide an intellectual vigor to help a variety of profit, not-for-profit and governmental programs. Educating executives entails providing functional tools to understand business and nurturing a mindset that requires people to sometimes view business as an opportunity to add value to society and sometimes as a game of chess where pieces can attack from a variety of directions.

Given the complexity of business management, one of the challenges that business school faculty members face is how to combine classroom learning with real-world experiences that mimic this complexity. Traditionally, most business schools have considered summer internships as an opportunity to provide some real-world experience. But it is becoming clear that summer internship is not sufficiently effective as a pedagogical tool. Internship experiences tend to be disjointed from learning because students do not work under the guidance of professors during their internships. Furthermore, the stakes in an internship have increased substantially over the years; these days many employers consider summer internships as interviewing and selection mechanism. Therefore students need to be prepared before they join the internships so they can deliver on their internship projects and convert them to full-time job offers.

Given this background, several business schools have come up with innovative ways to address the challenge of incorporating real-world experience in classroom settings. Some MBA programs require a capstone course that incorporates coursework in different functional areas—Finance, Marketing, Organizational Behavior, Operations—to be jointly applied in a problem-solving exercise that combines the use of tactics and strategy. Such capstone courses, however, can fall short because the ideas are not often tested in the real world. Others have stressed the role of entrepreneurial experiences in the curriculum.

Cornell University’s Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management takes a slightly different approach to coursework through its Immersion program, which combines functional skill learning with real-world consulting projects. Students in the second semester are required to choose a functional specialization; such as Marketing, Finance, Sustainability, Operations, etc. In each of these immersions, the faculty member works together with corporations to provide the opportunity to work on real-world problems in that particular functional area. For example, in the Marketing Immersion program, the students work on actual consultancy projects from various clients every year. These projects often relate to branding, pricing, customer insights, market segmentation or demand estimation. These are paid consultancy projects, with fees upwards of $5,000. The fee helps defray the costs associated with running the Immersion program. The faculty members running the Immersion program group students in teams of three to five and assign them to work with managers at top companies such as Kraft Foods, Verizon, Merrill Lynch-Bank of America, and Ocean Spray. The students each spend about 400 hours on their immersion project working with expert practitioners in the field and guided by Johnson’s faculty.

Immersion-Centered Curriculum

Johnson configured its curriculum to meet the needs of students and companies participating in the Immersion program. Immersion is only available to full-time, two-year program students, who complete the bulk of their “core” courses in the first semester of the first year.

In the second semester, students have to choose one of these six immersion programs: capital markets/asset management, investment banking, managerial finance, strategic marketing, operations management, and sustainable global enterprise. Students not interested in the offered specializations may opt for a customizable immersion program. Once the student enrolls into an immersion, the immersion project becomes the focal point of the Johnson student’s efforts. Faculty set the teams of students, balancing their strengths. The students assume the role of consultant, engaging their “clients” through video conferencing, telephone meetings and on-site visits. Nearly all immersion projects require market research to collect data from a sample of customers and require the use of online market research firms to gather this data. They do all this while attending the classes required for the functional specialization. Thus they get to work on a real-world business problem that pertains to their functional specialization while they are in the class discussing the conceptual foundations of these problems.

Over the years, Johnson has built the infrastructure to manage such Immersion programs. The Johnson Business Solutions office was set up to solicit consultancy projects from companies every year. The Johnson Business Solutions staff spends several months following up with prospective clients to sponsor immersion projects every year. Demands on faculty are unique, as well. Some MBA classes have as many as 60 students, but that number falls to 40 for immersion. This makes immersion more expensive than traditional classes. Faculty members are also expected to spend time with employers to build up support for immersion projects.

Better Preparation

Immersion offers the balance between real-world settings to test ideas and the tutelage of faculty and industry experts to create a learning experience. This experience gives Johnson graduates a competitive advantage in the workplace and heightens the odds of a full-time job offer upon graduation. It also makes them better prepared than their peers from other top-tier business graduate programs. In a recent survey, 63 percent said they were “as prepared” and 34 percent were “better prepared.”

Business schools are an extremely competitive field, where rankings, graduate placements, starting salaries for graduates and other factors are closely watched. At Johnson, 79 percent of the class of 2012 had accepted job offers and the mean base salary was $106,900 with 80 percent of those offers including a signing bonus that averaged $26,000.

This is the rung in the ladder of executive success and the immersion program offers a good foundation for making that climb.

(Bill Borden, senior media specialist at Coyne Public Relations, assisted with the development of this article.)

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