Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Early takeaways from "Foundations of Business Strategy"

Rebecca Kagan wasn’t sure what to expect when she signed up for Foundations of Business Strategy. As co-founder of the Food Recovery Network (FRN), a student-run nonprofit that donates surplus food from college dining halls to local shelters, Kagan had spent the previous year helping to establish chapters at 20 different colleges and garnering encouraging attention from major media outlets. Still, for all of FRN’s early successes, Kagan was concerned that it lacked a formal business model and accounting system.

In hopes of fixing this, Kagan posted a blurb on the course’s final project forums seeking analyses. Within a few days, a range of students had contacted her; some had real-world experience, while others brought nothing more than a desire to help. “Somebody coming in from the outside and asking first-level questions is really valuable,” Kagan noted. “Just by having students try to understand us, it’s been interesting to hear what they have asked for.”

FRN had never been evaluated in a formal capacity before, and Kagan was surprised to see students trying to measure the organization’s accountability and transparency. Ultimately, she discovered the most value not in the final analyses submitted by students, but in what she learned by interacting with a group of interested, fresh, and clear-eyed individuals.

Of course, FRN was just one of many organizations that sought help from students in the business strategy MOOC, which wrapped up last week. Now that the course is over, the team here at Coursolve is asking organizations – how’d it go? We’ve spoken with six out of the approximately 50 organizations that used the forums to solicit help. Here’s some of what they had to say.

Benefits

Everyone we spoke to believed, to varying extents, that students could provide valuable insights to their businesses. Although one organization contact doubted that students would ever surpass his own level of analysis due to his experience in the field, he nevertheless found it worth bringing in “young minds with great vision.”

Contacts also felt that committed students could contribute to their work regardless of prior expertise. However, students with different backgrounds and technical understanding were able to provide different types of support. In line with Kagan’s experience, one entrepreneur noted that although students with business experience put forward the most efficient analyses, novices asked worthwhile questions that forced him to challenge his long-standing assumptions.

Lastly, most organizations entered with few expectations and left pleasantly surprised at what students had been able to contribute. In the loosely structured pilot, most contacts invested only 2 hours a week or less corresponding with the students analyzing their businesses, meaning that the insights they received came at very little cost. For one entrepreneur, those 2 hours a week led to a new business model and a successful meeting with investors; for another, it led to a robust internal strategic analysis after three years of operation; and for Kagan, it led to a refocusing on organization and accountability. As one contact asked, “What do I have to lose here?”

Challenges

Organization contacts also identified several areas for improvement. One roadblock to collaboration was student reliability: over the duration of the course, more than half of the students who initially contacted each organization dropped off. While this may be a consequence of the massively open online setting, some contacts suggested that a clearer framing of expectations could lead to more productive partnerships.

The relative anonymity of course participants also posed an issue. Multiple organization contacts expressed some discomfort in trusting students they had never met and, as a result, some chose not to disclose sensitive information that could compromise their market advantage.  On the other side, at least one student refused to talk on the phone with a contact due to privacy concerns.

Next steps

As we dig deeper into survey data and hold additional follow-up interviews, we’ll be sharing what we learn and applying it in future real-world problem solving settings. In the meantime, when we asked organizations about what other needs they wanted help with, data analysis was one of the most commonly mentioned challenges. Luckily, the perfect opportunity is on its way.

Starting on May 1, students in University of Washington Professor Bill Howe’s MOOC, Introduction to Data Science, will have the opportunity to complete an optional data analysis project using real-world data from an organization. Potential projects could range from trend identification to data visualization to general analysis.

If you or an organization you work with are interested, be sure to read more and sign up for free at: http://coursolve.org/courses/datascience And remember to check back here soon for more takeaways from Foundations of Business Strategy.