Haas@Work: Students Work Inside Companies, Think Outside the Box

When executives at Visa wanted to deepen their understanding of how consumers are using social networks, the Haas@Work program caught their eye. They were intrigued by the opportunity to tap the brainpower of some 40 MBA students.

"We wanted fresh thinkers who were free to think about a space from a consumer mindset as opposed to a corporate mindset," says Scott Sanchez, Visa's vice president for Global Innovation Strategy. "We wanted to find people who had intimate experience with social networking — but it wasn't just about their youth. We were looking for smart thinking."

Haas@Work dispatches hand-picked teams of students to brainstorm innovative solutions to competitive challenges, followed by 100 days on the ground putting the approved recommendations into action. In addition to Visa, this year's clients included Panasonic, Wells Fargo, and Clorox – following last year's partners: Cisco Systems, The Walt Disney Company, Lam Research, and SunPower.

“The students forced us to completely rethink our social networking strategy," says Visa’s Sanchez. "We had been hoping for two or three good ideas from this, and we ended up getting nine."

Feng Xu, MBA 10; Oliver Strutynshi, MBA 09; and Chrstine Rhinehart, MBA 10, collaborate on ideas for Visa, a Haas@Work client.

Pejman Pour-Moezzi, MBA 10, applied to the Visa project because of his interest in social networking. "We brought in social psychology, influence, and sharing of information. Social networking companies are not really driven toward transactions — you need to take a softer approach," says Pour-Moezzi, who later used what he had learned from the Visa experience during his summer internship at Mozilla.

When a company partners with the program, a team of 40 students begins several weeks of intensive research on the firm and market conditions, guided by faculty members and external partners with industry and subject expertise. With Visa, for example, students worked with Associate Professor Terry Hendershott, the faculty director of the Center for Innovative Financial Technology.

Students are selected for Haas@Work projects through a competitive process that usually has three applicants vying for every spot, according to Adam Berman, executive director of the Institute for Business Innovation. A student's skills, experience, perspective, and creativity are all taken into account in building the teams.

"What is interesting is that with Panasonic, the challenge was to provide insights into the youth market, and with Wells, it was expanding market share in the retirement space, while the focus with Clorox was the supply chain for a line of green cleaning products," Berman adds. "We can take any high-level challenge and marshal 40 students with the right backgrounds in a cross-functional team to attack it."

The research period culminates in a full-day workshop at company headquarters, where the 40 part-time and full-time MBA students — broken into five teams that zero in on specific areas of the challenge — make their pitches directly to the company's top executives. The execs deliberate on the spot and cherry-pick their favorites, which are then pursued by smaller teams.

One presentation, in particular, electrified the Visa executives. "It was a very complicated idea, told to us in one of the most amazing presentations I've ever seen," Sanchez recalls. "The storytelling, the pictures they showed, the voice over, the solution – it absolutely blew us away. We are not only looking at implementing it, but we are planning to use their storytelling approach to push other ideas forward at Visa."

Visa found the experience with Haas@Work so valuable that Sanchez is already scoping out a new challenge to re-engage the program in the fall. "The students were all very down-to-earth, with a seek-to-understand mindset," Sanchez says. "For them, it was very much about listening and getting the right outcome rather than being wedded to something in particular. The intellectual firepower was also impressive."

Jeff Street, senior vice president of retail retirement for Wells Fargo, says he was initially attracted to the program as a cost-effective way to bring in new resources with a fresh perspective. He chose an opportunity that was both important to his group and easy for the students to grasp: How could the bank better help its customers save for retirement, whether they are just starting out or well on their way?

"The student teams delivered three new ideas we hadn’t thought of — and this was something we had been thinking about for a while," Street says. "These were completely different ways to tackle the challenge. That kind of creativity was the most impressive part."

For Clorox, students used an open-innovation approach to solve supply chain challenges with its Green Works natural product lines: Picking up the phone and calling supply chain experts at non-competitors for tips.

"Almost every student team reached out to other companies in this space and gathered intelligence about how they are solving similar problems," says Frank Tataseo, executive vice president for strategy and growth for plastic bags, wraps, and the Away from Home line. "I was so impressed by this approach I recommended it to our head of international. Often, our inclination has been to try to solve it all ourselves.”

Clorox and Haas are currently working together to implement two of the students' ideas: a supply-chain solution and a web-based marketing strategy. "This is exactly the kind of idea that we, as a consumer package goods company, could benefit from by involving students and how they use social networking," Tataseo says of the web-based marketing strategy. "Their views on how to create better one-to-one marketing were enlightening."

Tataseo says he'd highly recommend the program to other companies. “I guess one thing that never ceases to amaze me — and the Haas folks amazed me –is the distance they came in terms of understanding the business problems," he says. "This was impressive in and of itself, but also the number of ideas and finally, the way they presented their recommendations — they just wow you.”