Joining Forces

To train a world-class workforce, business schools are forging stronger bonds with the business community. The goal: to make business an active, long-term partner in the educational process.
Joining Forces

Once, when a company wanted to hire the best and brightest, it would send recruiters to the b-school campus each spring to meet the latest crop of soon-to-be graduates. To get back to its b-school roots, it might send its executives to visit the dean, speak to a class, or attend a luncheon. And to keep its workforce well-trained, it might enroll its managers in an executive program. Still, there were two distinct worlds at work—academia and enterprise operated, in large part, independently of one another.

Today, the stakes are higher. Companies face mounting global pressures, complex business problems, and concerns about sustaining the pipeline of top talent; business schools must keep up with swiftly changing business realities and bring them into the classroom in real time. Both sides are coming to the same realization: They can’t go it alone.

“The blend of the corporate sector and the business school curriculum has always been important, but today it’s doubly important,” says Andy Policano, dean of the Merage School of Business at the University of California, Irvine. “The global context makes the interaction between the business school and corporations more critical.”

As many business schools have discovered, the old rules often don’t apply in this new world of corporate relations. To build thriving links with the corporate community, b-schools have shifted their focus from fund raising to refining best practices in corporate relationship building. Each new approach is designed to help schools form tighter, more synergistic alliances with top business leaders and bring more corporations into the academic fold.

Rule 1: Know What Companies Want

Companies essentially have a short list of general concerns when they join forces with a business school: recruitment, branding, training, networking, and discovering the latest innovations in business. Their specific concerns, however, can be as varied as the businesses themselves. One company may need to develop a more entrepreneurial workforce or a more robust IT infrastructure, while another may want to expand into new global markets or manage large-scale change.

Understanding and meeting an organization’s individual needs are at the heart of a successful corporate connection, says Jean-Marie Hennes. As president of the HEC Foundation, the corporate relations arm of HEC Paris in France, Hennes emphasizes that developing a tailored approach to the needs of individual companies has become an essential way to woo their interest. Some companies may even want to work with a business school to develop programs targeted to their own industries.

“We must treat our corporate partners like clients. Every one of them must be under the impression that they are unique.”
—Jean-Marie Hennes. HEC Foundation“

A real estate company may need more managers, so its representatives may ask a school to help develop courses in real estate management,” says Hennes. As long as they make sense within a school’s larger mission, such specialized efforts can go a long way toward establishing friendships between corporations and universities, he emphasizes.

And although playing favorites may be frowned upon in other arenas, it can be a vital part of a successful partnership between a business school and a corporation. “We must treat our corporate partners like clients,” says Hennes. “Every one of them must be under the impression that they are unique.”

Customization is at the heart of the mission of IMD’s Corporate Learning Network in Lausanne, Switzerland, says its director, Paul Hunter. Once a company joins the network, it receives an initial visit from IMD staff to find out what its executives hope to gain from membership. Next, the school sets up a customized learning online portal containing information and research that targets those needs, explains Hunter.

“If the company is particularly interested in change management, for instance, we will design its portal that month to offer information on that topic,” he says. Companies use their IMD portals for training and brainstorming sessions to help them get particular projects off the ground. At the company’s request, IMD will also send e-mail reminders to employees to let them know when new material is available.

Likewise, when the Merage School wanted to strengthen its ties to the corporate community, its administrators first wanted to know how to customize their efforts. So, they embarked on a comprehensive study of the industries in the region. The study pinpointed five primary industrial sectors: real estate, investment and wealth management, healthcare, information technology, and entrepreneurship. The school then identified the major business leaders in those sectors and arranged to meet each one.

“We asked all the leaders to tell us about their particular challenges, and then we explained what we could do to help them meet those challenges,” says Policano. When it comes to corporate relationships, he says, his business school thinks of itself as an HR firm that provides not only talent, but also consultants, research studies, and training meetings tailored to suit an individual corporation’s needs.

“If you’re visiting a corporate leader, you have to be thinking like the person on the other side of the desk. You need to know what he wants before you even enter the door,” he adds. “That’s why we focused on five industries. We wanted to be able to approach someone in the healthcare industry and say, ‘Here’s exactly what we can do to help you.’”

Rule 2: Think Partners, Not Donors

Many schools, including the Merage School, HEC, and IMD, do not use the phrase “corporate donor” when they describe their outreach programs. Instead, they opt for the phrase “corporate partner.” The former implies a one-time transaction; the latter, a long-term, exclusive relationship. In fact, corporate partnership programs—in which companies pay a membership fee to a business school, usually on an annual basis—are quickly becoming the norm. “We don’t have corporate clients; we have learning partners,” says Hunter of IMD. “We believe we can learn much from each other.”

Both parties enjoy the reciprocal nature of the arrangement, says Hunter. For instance, companies can join IMD’s Corporate Learning Network at one of two levels. They can pay one membership fee to join as full learning partners with complete access to all of IMD’s research and academic resources as well as a seat on IMD’s foundation board. Or, they can pay a lower membership fee to become business associates and enjoy more limited access.

Creating a synergy between the school and the corporate community is essential for a business program, agrees Jette Ryttergaard, director of corporate relations at Copenhagen Business School in Denmark. Its program, CBS Connect, invites companies to subscribe to its network for €80,000 every three years. In return, these companies receive a range of support services from the school’s corporate relations office, such as exclusive career fairs, advisory board participation, and direct access to and involvement in school research.

“Ultimately, we measure our success by how many people are interested in becoming involved with our school. Our philosophy is to break down the walls of the business school, so that you cannot differentiate where the business school ends and the business school community begins.”
—Andy Policano, University of California at Irvine

“We have gradually adjusted our corporate partnership package to match the needs and wishes of participating companies, both to support our current partners and to attract new ones,” says Ryttergaard.

To become a corporate partner of the HEC Foundation, companies pay €75,000 a year or €350,000 a year, depending on the level of engagement they desire. Hennes notes that French corporations want to know exactly what they’re getting for their corporate membership. The foundation makes sure its corporate members become part of the governance of HEC Paris, serving on the school’s committees for teaching, research, or communication.

“They really have the power to decide how we use their money,” says Hennes. “If they’re financing an endowed chair, it’s not enough for them to see their name in the chair’s title. They want to be a part of the class. You’d be surprised at how many executives in France want to teach in the classroom.”

Rule 3: Create Multiple Points of Involvement

Once business schools sign a new corporate partner, their next challenge is to create an array of opportunities for companies to engage with students and faculty. Increasing the frequency of such interactions between businesses and business schools is a high priority at CBS, says Ryttergaard. For example, CBS recently introduced weekly individual career counseling meetings between students and corporate partners. Ryttergaard also has launched a monthly e-newsletter that shares with corporate partners the latest research and courses from CBS faculty, inviting their involvement where their expertise may apply.

IMD’s Corporate Learning Network includes an integrated network of opportunities for its partners, explains Hunter. For example, every Wednesday, the company creates a 30-minute Webcast that features an interview with a faculty member or guest speaker about the latest research. “Each week, anyone at a partner company can interact live with our faculty and ask a question,” says Hunter. “We typically have more questions come in than we can answer during the 30 minutes, so we answer additional questions afterward by e-mail.” IMD has already created 200 Wednesday Webcasts, and so far, more than 25,000 people across the network have registered for Webcast access. The company also has launched a series of five- to ten-minute podcasts on a variety of business topics.

In some programs, corporate leaders are taking on more active roles in the educational process—they’re not just stopping by for a guest lecture. They’re actually designing courses, competitions, and consulting projects. In some cases, they’re even selecting the students who attend the program. For example, companies take a particularly active role in the Masters in Management (MIM) Program, offered through the Community of European Management Schools and International Companies (CEMS), an alliance of business schools and corporations based in Jouy-en-Josas, France. Representatives of member companies in the CEMS network take the time to coach students individually, speak to them in the classroom, interact with them at scheduled events, and even vet student candidates (see “The MIM Program: A Corporate Gateway to Business Education” on page 50).

“Companies are aware that business schools offer a new way of approaching new talent, one much different from classic recruitment. By taking a direct part in students’ educations, they can show their organizations in a different light and help students become more familiar with their company culture and attitudes,” says Catherine O’Sullivan, the corporate relations manager for CEMS.

CEMS also strives to provide opportunities for corporate involvement that go beyond the academic, says O’Sullivan. For example, the organization includes a student governing body, called the Student Board, which exists to bring together academic and corporate partners to work on “issues that are close to students’ hearts,” she says. This year, students organized a project across the CEMS academic network with the United Nations World Food Program called “Walk the World.” A number of CEMS corporate partners took part, contributing financial or technological support. Petroleum company BP donated €10,500 to kick off the students’ fundraising efforts. In the end, the Student Board raised €50,000 in this first-time event.

By offering a variety of ways to become involved, a school makes sure that each of its partnering companies will find a niche it wants to fill, says Policano of the Merage School. At Merage, for instance, business leaders can serve on one of five advisory boards or participate in its executive mentor program that matches students with one of 110 executive mentors. It has formed a Senior Leadership Circle, which gives 550 business leaders the opportunity to contribute ideas to the school and network with each other. In addition, the school operates a ropes challenge course for corporations to help them develop teamwork among their employees.

“The closer we are to our corporate partners, the better we understand them. That’s good for them, and it’s good for us.”
—Paul Hunter, IMD

“Ultimately, we measure our success by how many people are interested in becoming involved with our school. Our philosophy is to break down the walls of the business school, so that you cannot differentiate where the business school ends and the business school community begins,” says Policano. “The key element of our mission is to be an integral part of the engine that drives the growth in this community.”

Rule 4: Don’t Ask for Money

Although fund raising is the lifeblood of a business school, it has become a secondary focus for many corporate relations programs. For instance, at CBS, the main function of the school’s five-year-old corporate relations office has gradually shifted from fund raising to providing support and counsel to its corporate partners, says Ryttergaard. 

This evolution has been driven, in part, by an extremely competitive recruitment market in Denmark. Companies everywhere now come to business schools not only to recruit new hires and train executives, but also to boost their brands, build their networks, request specialized research, and design courses specific to their needs. The days when the success of a business school’s corporate relations office was measured solely in dollar signs, she says, are largely over.

And that’s a good thing, says Policano of the Merage School, who emphasizes that an increase in corporate donations may be the result of a strong corporate relations program, but it can no longer be the aim. “The last thing we do with a company is ask for money,” Policano says. “We find that companies are eager to help once we have demonstrated our value to them. But the value proposition has to come first; any business school must first earn the right to ask.”

As business becomes more complex and unpredictable, the give-and-take between businesses and business schools becomes all the more important to help both camps keep ahead of the curve. “Because the business community is so complex and so diverse, there is much to learn,” he says. In such circumstances, he adds, “enhancing learning across academia and the business community is much more critical.”

Rule 5: Build a Network of Leaders

Perhaps more than anything else, many companies look to business schools to help them expand their networks—of knowledge, talent, and contacts. They’ve developed a critical interest in working through business schools to reach a more diverse, global, mobile, and rapidly evolving business market, says Hunter of IMD. “In today’s world, many business leaders find it difficult to network and interact with other companies on a global scale, which can be a definite handicap,” he says. “Business schools can give them those opportunities to interact.”

Any business school that can provide companies the opportunities of a dynamic and wide-reaching network will benefit from its corporate program, says Hunter. IMD works to build a sense of community throughout its academic and corporate network through a series of one- to two-day “discovery events,” which focus on topics such as entrepreneurship, energy futures, and the markets in China and India. It offers 25 to 30 global forums a year, as well as its annual CEO roundtable, a one-day gathering for CEOs of the more than 180 companies in IMD’s Corporate Learning Network.

Each of these events is designed to bring together members of the Learning Network to exchange ideas and speak directly about the challenges they face. “We want to offer a ‘global meeting place’ for our member organizations, where their employees can interact with IMD’s faculty, talk with people from other companies, and return to their workplaces with a fresh mindset and ideas they can apply immediately,” says Hunter. He adds that many companies send employees to IMD’s discovery events as a reward for a job well done or as an incentive to encourage higher level performance.

CEMS also wants to offer its academic and corporate members more opportunities to learn from and interact organization plans to provide more benchmarking activities to allow members to see how they compare to each other. Also under consideration is a program in which three member companies in the same industry would work together to create a single, revolving internship; through the internship, business students would have the opportunity to work three months at each company and compare different corporate cultures. At the same time, collaborating companies could gain a different perspective on their shared industry, says O’Sullivan.

“We have built a network of exchange for our members,” says O’Sullivan. “Now we want to launch projects that bring them together and make use of their differences. We want to take what we already do and do it better.”

Rule 6: Merge the Best of Two Worlds

Under these new rules of corporate engagement, a b-school’s corporate partners program can unquestionably serve the complex needs of the business community. But its intrinsic value to the business school itself is just as essential, say these administrators. Often, this value can’t be measured on a balance sheet.

For business students to get the best education possible, the business school is “only part of the equation,” says Policano of the Merage School. “The rest of it must come from the corporate community. We have to establish a strong bond with companies, so that they can tell us about the challenges they face and our students can learn about those challenges firsthand.”

For example, Policano notes that, as a result of close corporate relationships, Merage faculty have received data for important research, and its students are granted access to valuable consulting work. Microsoft oversees an annual project for 20 Merage MBAs, while Montpelier Investments runs an annual investment strategy competition that allows students not only to benefit from the learning experience, but also to compete for $100,000 in scholarships. Factor in corporate keynote speakers, advisory council service, and other corporate contributions, and an effectively executed corporate relations program may be among the most valuable assets a business school can have.

Such close corporate partnerships afford a business school a direct line into today’s business challenges, agrees Hunter. “We believe the closer we are to our partners, the better we understand them and the better we can provide them with the information they need for their ongoing learning,” he says. “That’s good for them, and it’s good for us.”

There’s no better definition of a “win-win situation,” say those heading corporate relations initiatives. Successful corporate partnership programs provide more varied learning experiences to students and deliver more qualified graduates to the business community. That synergy helps everyone—schools, students, faculty, and business—maintain a sharp competitive edge in a competitive global market.