Sixty students from 15 universities - 12 from across the U.S. and 3 international - participated in the 8th Annual CIBER Case Challenge this past Saturday at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. I had the privilege of being selected as a judge and, as such, spent the third and final day on campus interacting with these students, listening to their presentations and providing feedback.
As an international business professional who regularly talks up the importance of thinking globally and adequately preparing our students for the global marketplace, the annual CIBER Case Challenge delivers an excellent opportunity for students to appreciate their importance in real time.
"The CIBER Case Challenge is a part of the overall Centers for International Business Education and Research (CIBER) program, funded by the U.S. Department of Education, whose mandate is to increase U.S. competitiveness in the global market," says Kelly Aceto, Associate Director of the University of Connecticut CIBER. "By offering students a chance to work together on a real business problem, these students emerge better prepared to succeed in the workplace here and internationally."
For starters, each team consists of four currently-enrolled undergraduate business students - each from a different school* - who each represent a different specific functional area: Finance (including Accounting), Marketing, Management and Operations. Each of the 15 teams had at least one international student from one of these three universities: Singapore Management University, The American University in Cairo and Rikkyo University in Tokyo. Student teams were assigned by the CIBER Management Group at the University of Connecticut Business School (all student-run) who also coordinated the cross-cultural teams' virtual meetings online a few weeks prior to their coming together for three intense days.
The teams spent the first day getting to know each other through team-building exercises. At 9 am the following day, they all received the same 20-page case study on American Express and were asked to "resolve" how the company could expand globally and leverage the most recent technologies, while maintaining the company's hallmark customer service brand. The teams then presented their findings to a panel of judges starting at 8:30 am the following morning. It was an exercise in which the learning and the experience were one and the same.
I work on cross-cultural and virtual teams; it can be quite challenging. I've worked with some pretty smart people on seemingly impossible problems before. We usually had the luxury of time (except in crisis situations), pre-existing relationships and significant resources at our disposal to solve very real business challenges. It's pretty difficult. And although the CIBER Case Challenge is a simulation, these top-notch students compete to win.
And they delivered. The collective discipline, smart thinking and energy the students put toward the challenge was palpable in halls of the UCONN Business School. The presentations were detailed - some teams even had scores of appendices explaining their financials - and the presenters polished and well-spoken. Some of the campaign slogans were notable, such as "Think Beyond the Card," as they played up technology. Many students demonstrated that they appreciate the power of graphics as one could visual can can be worth 10 slides. Some teams presented seamlessly, as if they'd been working together for months. Others obviously struggled and, in the feedback session, some admitted that they just couldn't accomplish as much nor as easily with people who approached problem-solving from a different perspective. They all wanted more time.
Most of the core ideas were similar but how the teams presented the information and their rationale differed significantly. I found the teams' approach to globalization initiatives the most interesting. A few teams wanted to expand around the world broadly and expansively all at once. Others selected a few keys markets, explaining the rationale for "low-hanging fruit of Canada, UK and Australia" because of the combination of affluent buyers who also spoke English. Some focused on Asia because of the region's growth opportunities. Quite a few talked about the importance of cross-cultural training throughout global expansion, which tells me these students understand that you just can't "go global" without proper preparation. Awesome.
I wasn't the only one impressed with these students and the competition; my fellow judges were as well.
"It was a fantastic opportunity to interact with high-potential, globally-minded business students," said Abe Minto, CIBER Case Challenge judge and UCONN Alum '98. "This is truly an international competition in action and harnesses the best of experiential learning."
As one of the nine first-round judges, I reviewed back-to-back presentations of 5 of the 15 teams throughout the morning and helped narrow the finalists down to three; one team was chosen as finalist from each set of five teams. These three finalists then made their final presentation in front of the watchful eyes of their eliminated peers and four new judges: David Freeman, former CEO of Loctite Corporation; Christopher Ciunci, the founder and CEO of TribalVision; Doreen Nouzakes of the Society for Human Resource Management, and Robert Werner, President of Dua Consulting.
All three finalists had strong presenters, organized and results-driven presentations, and great ideas that could be implemented. Team "Luminary Consulting" won: Ahmed Khairat, American University in Cairo; Emily Palmeri, Northeastern University; Vanessa Kropf, University of Southern California; and Jeremy Dollar, Georgia State University. The winning team distinguished itself with a clear strategy that the judges indicated would be the most likely to maintain its customer service brand distinction while allowing targeted global expansion in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Japan.
I was impressed by all the students for many reasons. They wanted to participate in a competitive and grueling competition. They worked through multiple cross-cultural obstacles, including different nationalities, language barriers and even diverse university cultures. But most of all I admire them for thinking globally throughout the competition. As a business professional who speaks regularly on campuses across the country, I don't usually experience the deep and sincere embrace of globalization that I did this weekend. Nor am I often surrounded by so many "believers" as I found in my fellow judges, the student advisers and the University of Connecticut CIBER team. That gives me tremendous hope that, indeed, we are moving toward better preparation of our students to enter the global jobs market. Go Global!
* Students participated from the following schools: Belmont University, Georgia State University, Michigan State University, Purdue University, San Diego University, Temple University, Ohio State University, University of Connecticut, University of Maryland, University of Miami, University of North Carolina, University of South Carolina and University of Southern California.