Do business leaders make better mentors than professors with PhDs? If students are solving real-world challenges, the answer is often “yes,” because their approach to solving problems tends to be more practical and efficient. Carolina da Costa of Insper in São Paolo, Brazil, made that point during a presentation at AACSB’s Curriculum Conference last May in St. Louis, Missouri.
Da Costa, who is dean of undergraduate programs and director of the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Center, described Insper’s Effective Problem-Solving program. In this mandatory course, teams of students spend one day a week over a four-month period consulting at local companies to address real issues. Students learn to generate hypotheses, collect data, analyze situations, and propose solutions.
Each team is mentored by an executive who not only guides students through the problem-solving process, but also models professional behavior and makes sure students bring the right attitudes with them to work. Executives also evaluate student performance just as they would evaluate employee contributions.
When the program began, professors served as mentors, but the results were not entirely satisfactory, says da Costa. That’s because of the gulf between what academics prize and what executives in the real world consider important. At her conference session, da Costa presented a chart that summarized the very different approaches professors and practitioners take to key business activities:
. Professors insist on a statistically valid sample; executives will use the best data available. If no data is available, professors will try to collect a valid sample, while executives will observe, take notes, and interview.
Conducting an analysis
. Professors provide a report that is rigorous; executives provide one that’s useful.
Proposing a solution
. Professors want one that’s well-supported; executives want one that’s viable.
Da Costa notes that academics and practitioners also take very different approaches to handling students who are free riders in class or who don’t seem committed to the project. Professors try to exert tight control over students’ activities, while executives will give honest feedback and might even eject free riders from the group. Because Insper wants to train students to operate in the real world, da Costa says, administrators have come to consider the executive input vital to the success of the program.
How can professors make sure all students involved in a group project participate? In Insper’s Effective Problem-Solving course, one student from each group makes a presentation to the class. On the day of presentations, the school holds a lottery to determine which student from each group must speak in class—so all of them must be prepared to do so.