Faculty at the Farmer School of Business meet a humanoid robot.
WHAT CAN BUSINESS professors learn from Silicon Valley? A great deal, says Brett Smith, professor of entrepreneurship and founding director of the Center for Social Entrepreneurship at Miami University’s Farmer School of Business in Oxford, Ohio. “There is no better place than San Francisco to get an up-front view of the leading edge of business, technology, and models of the 21stcentury economy,” says Smith.
In January, 15 Farmer School faculty members took a field trip to San Francisco, California, to visit several hightech companies in the Bay Area. Their objective: to gain an awareness of how technology will impact society, consider how they might bring technology into the classroom, uncover new research opportunities, and build relationships with executives.
The dean asked chairs to provide two people from each department to make the trip. The dean’s office also provided funding, as the outing was considered an investment in professional development. Smith was one of the trip’s four primary planners, along with Glenn Platt, a professor of network technology and management and director of interactive media studies; Marie Ramagli, the school’s West Coast development and alumni representative; and Kirk Bogard, the assistant dean for external relations.
Smith and the rest of the team worked to set up site visits with companies involved in bleeding-edge technology such as blockchain, artificial intelligence, robotics, cryptocurrency, and eSports (such as massive multiplayer online video games). By learning more about such topics, Farmer faculty would be able to “inject frontier thinking into our curriculum,” Smith explains. Among the companies the professors visited were Google; incubators Runway and Tech-Crunch; Bay Area venture capital firms; and SoftBank Robotics, which designed the humanoid robot Pepper.
The team set up company visits by contacting alumni who were executives at Bay Area tech firms, business leaders who were connected to the school through its Digital Innovation student internship program, and other companies that were “one or two degrees away” from the Farmer School’s network of contacts. These companies provided participating faculty with a host of valuable insights. For instance, says Smith, while discussing cryptocurrency with venture capitalists, a finance professor had a sudden “aha!” moment when the complexity of the markets suddenly became clear.
“Often, the most valuable part of the visit was the unexpected—the deeper conversations or real-life examples,” Smith says. “The show-and-tell is always exciting. Who doesn’t want to engage with a robot? But the most interesting part is talking about strategy, data, customer acquisition, and funding.”
Eric Stenstrom, an assistant professor of marketing at the Farmer School, says that one of his “most eye-opening visits was the one at Googleplex, Google’s corporate headquarters in Mountain View. Executives spoke about their use of machine learning to automate and optimize how their clients purchase Google Advertising. It was fascinating to learn about the most commonly used machine learning-based advertising strategies and why the company recommends certain bidding and budgeting strategies over others.”
Faculty now are incorporating what they learned in San Francisco into their Ohio classrooms. “For example, one faculty member revamped his course for this semester to make blockchain technology a central focus,” says Smith. In addition, a startup named Brandless reached out to the school immediately after the visit to discuss collaborating on case studies and in-class projects.
The school plans to arrange two outings a year until a significant portion of faculty have had a chance to participate; at that point, the trips probably will be scaled back to annual events. “The trips undoubtedly will be different every time as we change the topic list and the locations,” says Smith. “That’s the thing about technology and business in the Bay Area. It’s like stepping into a stream that is never the same stream twice.”
Smith has advice for other schools that want to plan similar excursions. “Identify the primary goals of the trip,” he recommends. “Encourage selfselection and broad multidisciplinary faculty representation. Frame the idea as remaining at the leading edge of business in the 21st century.”