Marketing Education: How Academic and Business Partnerships Elevate Student Learning

Partnerships between universities and companies are not new, but they are changing and growing. The current concerns about the “skills gap” in various sectors and the looming predictions about the “war for talent” as baby boomers retire have seen many businesses expand their involvement with schools beyond the traditional research collaborations of the past to support and participate in curricula development in the classroom.

Partnerships between universities and companies are not new, but they are changing and growing. The current concerns about the “skills gap” in various sectors and the looming predictions about the “war for talent” as baby boomers retire have seen many businesses expand their involvement with schools beyond the traditional research collaborations of the past to support and participate in curricula development in the classroom.

More than ever, professors today are challenged to find new and innovative ways to engage their students, and partnering with practitioners helps them to bring real-world experience and perspectives to their lessons. The practitioners, and by extension, their companies benefit because students exposed to real-world issues in the classroom are better prepared to contribute to their organizations, and experiential learning gives students a definitive edge in the job market.

I recently sat down with two educators at the forefront of this next wave of instruction: Dr. V Kumar, Richard and Susan Lenny Distinguished Chair Professor in Marketing, Georgia State University; and Dr. Sharmila C. Chatterjee, Senior Lecturer in Marketing and the Academic Head for the Enterprise Management Track, MIT Sloan School of Management.

Are you seeing any changes in the number and the background of students enrolled in your marketing classes?

Dr. V Kumar (VK): The subject of marketing is broadening, bringing finance, accounting, math and IT into the discipline. Direct marketing has traditionally embraced technology, with its historic reliance on response and return on investment modeling and measurement. Today, marketing cross-functions with many disciplines and students taking marketing classes today reflect many [educational] backgrounds. Today, you do have students say, ‘I’m good in finance, I think I’ll take a marketing class”.

How would you describe you school’s interaction with the business community?

VK: In our curriculum, our students are exposed to professional marketers—adjunct professors and guest speakers—who help students make connections with marketing career choices. Often these speakers come from Greater Atlanta-area Fortune 1000 firms, as well as advertising agencies, client-side brands, and marketing technology and service providers.

Prof. Sharmila Chatterjee (SC): This is a topic dear to my heart, and one that MIT’s philosophy facilitates. MIT’s curriculum is emblematic of its motto ‘Mens et manus‘ which is Latin for ‘Mind and hand.’ The critical role of ‘Action Learning’ at MIT Sloan reflects this philosophy where classroom-taught concepts and theories are applied in practice with companies worldwide.

Every semester, an enormous percentage of students enroll in action learning courses (called Action Learning Labs). Students engage in live projects to tackle business problems, devising solutions that are actually implemented by companies. Partnering companies span the spectrum from startups to multinationals such as Google, IBM, Nike, and Procter & Gamble. Companies help by supplying business challenges—and students bid on projects they want to solve. We are constantly reaching out to companies to help line up these Action Learning opportunities. Given the live nature of these projects, confidentiality is top priority and is always part of these business partnerships. Internships, which are highly prized by both students and companies, complement these assignments.

Has student participation in these experiential programs/activities produced positive feedback?

VK: Undergraduates are looking for internships and cooperative work experiences, earning credits and professional experiences, ahead of graduation—and providing direct recruitment opportunities for these students when they graduate. We highly encourage faculty to build relationships with marketing professionals—in and beyond the classroom.

On the graduate level, for MBAs with a marketing concentration, end of first-year internships give the real-world experience and practice these students demand for their work, and often second-year relationships result in permanent positions. Where doctorate degrees are awarded, we solicit businesses to present their most challenging business problems—or unmet opportunities—presenting a scenario where research can be presented to meet the need. For example, a recent research project for the world-class Georgia Aquarium sought to overcome declining attendance and revenue. Five years of customer data, competitive analysis, and other marketing information enabled five different modeling approaches to be evaluated and the results of this research were applied to media planning, ad spend, acquisition and retention, and even the time lengths of exhibits.

SC: Action Learning Labs are a win-win for both parties. Students find that these assignments are an excellent learning experience. Participating companies not only praise the high level at which our students deliver, but also give us repeat projects. Participating companies also see such student engagement as a major part of their own recruitment strategy.

Do you have recommendations on how employers—and marketing professionals in particular—can take to expand their role in your school’s education efforts?

SC: I do recommend that companies submitting student projects scope the assignments appropriately, given that students work on these projects along with other coursework. Generally, each student is able to devote up to four hours per week for eight to 12 weeks. Company representatives also need to devote time themselves. These projects are not shallow, but rather in-depth analyses. In order to formulate useful recommendations, students need to be supported by weekly company conference calls. In the event of startups, connecting with the CEO is extremely vital, while larger organizations may rely on mid-level executives—sponsored by a top management professional—as the students’ liaison.

Marie Adolphe is vice president of program development for New York-based Marketing EDGE, formerly known as the Direct Marketing Educational Foundation. She can be reached at madolphe@marketingEDGE.org.

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