There’s an old adage among engineers: If you’re trying to solve a problem, take it to freshman engineering students, not seniors. That’s because, after four years of learning about the limits of physics, they lose the ability to design solutions that ignore its boundaries.
That’s why such companies as Brooks Brothers, Costco (COST), Siemens (SIE),Emerson Electric (EMR), and others are working with “training labs,” where MBA students come up with novel ways to solve some daunting problems—from turning around a struggling business unit to developing a retailer’s supply chain strategy for refrigerated groceries in India.
The benefits for MBAs are obvious: They get to experience real pressures, challenges, and deadlines in the workplace. Corporations don’t just do it for charity, however. At a leading health-care company, the students analyzed more than 4,000 knee replacement procedures to identify new best practices. Now the company is applying similar analytical rigor to other medical specialties and procedures.
Since I helped start the program in 2007, more than 2,000 students have participated in 250 projects across the participating schools, which now includeInsead, London Business School, University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, and University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, among others. (The Tepper School of Businessat Carnegie Mellon was the first to partner with us.)
In contrast to traditional internships, this approach puts the students on a team in which they work with company executives on critical issues. A.T. Kearney clients bring the teams real projects, with the company’s consultants supporting both students and faculty throughout the term. Some schools also involve students from their information systems, supply chain, and engineering programs alongside the B-school students.
Companies that use the lab have hired a number of its participants. Students who have solved actual problems for these organizations are much better prepared to step into real positions.
Brooks Brothers now keeps a list of projects it wants the students to work on. Last year, the company asked Tepper students to help create a model to predict how its new stores will perform. The project involved data-intensive analysis and resulted in a program the company will use to predict revenue for store openings in the future. Former Brooks Brothers President Diane Ellis—now CEO of the Limited—was so impressed she has asked students to work on projects for her new company.
Applying newly learned skills to real, thorny corporate problems is great training for students. But companies also often benefit when they toss these problems to smart students whose thinking hasn’t been limited by years of being told “no.”