MAP at 25

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BY Terry Kosdrosky and Lisa Kiser


Michigan Ross changed the landscape of business education 25 years ago with its signature Multidisciplinary Action Projects (MAP) program. Today, innovation continues to create transformative experiences for the next generation of business leaders.

B. Joseph White became dean of Michigan Ross in 1990 — only a few years removed from his time as an officer at Cummins Inc., a diesel engine manufacturer — and brought back with him a lingering concern about business school graduates. He saw plenty of smart, talented people, but with limited real-world effectiveness.

At the same time, accounting professor Paul Danos was leading a committee at Ross to rethink the MBA curriculum. Though he didn't have White's recent industry experience, he had similar concerns.

What they and others at Ross pioneered as a solution — Multidisciplinary Action Projects — brought experience-based learning to the forefront of business education and sparked further curriculum innovation both at Ross and other schools.

"I resolved that if I became a dean, whether at Michigan or another school, I would do what I could to help students become more effective in the world into which they were heading," says White, who served as dean from 1990-2001 and later became president of the University of Illinois. "MAP became one of the most gratifying experiences of my professional life — to work with Paul Danos and all of the sponsoring companies and really see an idea come alive and its intended effect."

MAP has not only given Ross national recognition as an innovator, but it also has made a deep impact on the lives of thousands of alumni, who often point to the MAP experience as one of their most memorable times at Michigan Ross.

How much impact? Alumni who experienced MAP are now business leaders sponsoring projects of their own. 

"MAP was not only ahead of business teaching when it launched, it was ahead of industry," says Seth Kaufman, MBA '01, chief marketing officer for PepsiCo North America Beverages. "In the future, I see it continuing to push the boundaries of what's possible in bringing people and ideas together."

The first-year MBA students heading off to projects in spring 2017 will be the 25th MAP class since a pilot course in 1992. A silver anniversary is a perfect time to examine your roots, see where you are, and figure out how to stay ahead in a time of rapid global change.


No Roadmap Required

Dean White named Danos associate dean (later senior associate dean) overseeing the MBA Program with a mission to fashion a new core curriculum with a major action-learning piece. Danos decided it was time to stop tweaking around the edges and forge ahead with full-scale change. Semesters were broken up into two seven-week terms, with a full term in the spring semester for first-year MBAs dedicated to a real-world action project — MAP.

The idea was to give students a real-world issue to solve at a company, let them deal with the uncertainty they would encounter in the business world, work as a team under deadline, and present solutions. There was no syllabus, and no case study with guidance questions.

That kind of overhaul asked a lot from faculty, students, and corporate sponsors. Faculty had to move or shorten long-established core courses and step out of their area of expertise and become MAP project advisors for a term instead of classroom research teachers. Students were asked to go along with something no other business school was doing. Sponsors had to come up with projects that would be meaningful to students. 

“We were dealing with the first-mover problem,” White recalls.

There were plenty of obstacles and skeptics. But by addressing them one at a time while focusing on the main goal, the overall value became apparent, says Danos, who is now dean emeritus of the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College.

“I just decided to roll the dice and go with a very radical change, and Joe White supported it,” he says.

“There was some political sensitivity. But when we presented it I think most people were ready for a big change. It just hadn’t been proposed to them yet. It proved to me if you think things through carefully, have good people on your team, and you’re careful in how you implement, change isn’t as scary as it seems.”

A MAP pilot ran in 1992 with part of the Full-Time MBA class participating — 140 students across 21 projects at 20 companies. It didn't take long for even some of the skeptical students to see the value.

"One of the ways we knew that was because students who weren't in the pilot were concerned they were at a competitive disadvantage," says White. "The recruiters really liked this thing."

The next year MAP became part of the required core MBA curriculum, with all 420 MBA first-years working across 60 projects at 46 companies. To date 10,438 Full-Time MBA students have worked on 2,010 projects in 92 countries with 1,352 sponsor companies.

Other business schools took notice of MAP's success, and some adopted action-learning programs into their curricula.

"Once MAP was instituted at full scale it became part of the Michigan brand, part of the character," says White. "Then into the next decade, as other schools began to do versions of MAP, we were seen as a pioneer in a major new teaching method."

In the 2010 book Rethinking the MBA: Business Education at a Crossroads, Harvard Business School professors Srikant Datar, David Garvin, and researcher Patrick Cullen highlighted Michigan Ross' MAP.

"The reason we looked at MAP was because in our conversations with executives and other faculty members, many pointed to it as the gold standard for experiential learning in MBA programs," says Cullen, now vice president of strategy and innovation at AACSB International. "It was distinctive because it was in the first year and no other classes were offered during that period. There was a lot of praise given to the global nature of these projects as well."


Growth: Global and Across Programs

The types of projects students handled grew in variety over the years — such as nonprofits and entrepreneurial ventures — and MAP expanded to the Executive MBA and Global MBA Programs in  2002, Evening MBA Program in 2008, and Weekend MBA Program in 2011. This winter, BBA, Minor in Business, and Master of Management students can enroll in a Capstone MAP course.

Expanding globally has been key to MAP's vitality. The first international MAP pilot launched in 1995 with one project for Whirlpool in Europe. The following year it was standard offering with six sponsoring companies in Warsaw, London, Kiev, Israel, and Holland.
Soon, corporate global expansion and student demand for global experiences pushed the demand higher, says Andy Lawlor, lecturer of entrepreneurship and strategy and director of global MBA projects. In 2004, 300 students applied for 169 international MAP spots.

"I was only going to be able to satisfy half of them," he says. "It was a very exciting time, although I sure didn't meet the market test. We needed more and more global MAP projects and they have particular challenges to solve. There are language barriers, data barriers, visa issues, travel budgeting, and funding. But we had to get good at it very quickly."

Today, roughly half of all MAP projects in the full-time program are international, which Lawlor says is a testament to Ross meeting the changing needs of the business world and committing the resources to make it happen.


Compounding Impact

Talk to a Ross MBA alumnus from the past 25 years and chances are one of the first things they'll talk about is MAP.

It's such a profound experience for students, it's no surprise that many sponsors are Ross alums. Having been in the trenches, this new generation of business leaders knows better than anyone the impact MAP has on students, so they're returning the favor and paying forward their experience.

"MAP was instrumental for me. Being an international student, I had never worked in the U.S. before," says Rodrigo Fernandes, MBA '11, reflecting on his MAP project at J.P. Morgan in Chicago. "It gave me a chance to test the waters in corporate America and get accustomed to the culture and work environment."

Fernandes' MAP experience actually shifted the course of his career and sparked his decision to pursue financial services in the U.S., something he hadn't considered prior. He now serves as vice president, commercial strategy and corporate development, at Capital One, where he convinced senior management to sponsor a MAP project.

His pitch consisted of three main points: recruitment value, the infusion of new insights, and the opportunity to give back. Management agreed, and students exceeded expectations.

The first team investigated additional products and services at a specialty segment in Capital One's business portfolio. The company wanted a fresh perspective to determine whether there was a business opportunity or not. After considering the MAP team's analysis, they decided to go for it.

"This project caught the attention of senior leadership, and three to four months later we made a large acquisition in the same industry," says Fernandes. "I can't correlate all of that to MAP, but there is something to be said for that work. MAP helped bring that industry to the forefront at Capital One."

Recruitment has been another huge benefit for sponsors, he says.

"The MAP project made really good impressions, which speaks to the caliber of Michigan Ross students," he adds. "We have been able to extend offers to Ross grads who weren't even involved in our MAPs because of the positive impression our first team left."

PepsiCo's Kaufman agrees. He pitched MAP to his company as a recruiting vehicle, but the value has been much larger. PepsiCo MAP projects have encompassed both traditional projects, such as the rebranding of the SoBe drink line, as well as more unconventional assignments, including the creation of new revenue streams outside of food and beverage. 

"We have seen real impact in terms of ideas actually being implemented," says Kaufman, whose MAP project as a student was with an Israeli startup. "We've adopted marketing platforms, innovations, and pursued business opportunities that originated from MAP projects. Having students come in and push our thinking is great. When you're on the inside, it's difficult to have a critical perspective. But we encourage students to really tell it like it is and challenge the status quo."

Fernandes echoes this sentiment. "There's value in the outside perspective. Those who are less familiar with a company can often find the blind spots in terms of market, industry, and competitors."

But it's not just an outside perspective that MAP brings. The student factor plays a role as well, Fernandes says.

"People want to help students," he says. "The MAP team uncovered so much in their interviews. Even an outside consulting company can't get that level of information."


Staying On Top

MAP led to an infusion of action-based learning throughout Ross. Leadership crisis challenges, undergraduate experiences, and on-site consulting projects all were sparked by that pilot project in 1992, says Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks, professor of management and organizations and faculty director of the Office of Action-Based Learning.

"We started humbly with MAP in our Full-Time MBA Program and now there are wonderful variations on the theme customized for particular programs," he says. "We've taken a model in one program to a whole community of learning partners. What started out as a key feature of our Full-Time MBA Program is now something that everyone at Michigan Ross can participate in."

Staying on top requires constant innovation. For example, student teams are now supported by more than faculty advisors; communications faculty help with reports and presentations, research support helps with qualitative analysis and surveys when needed, second-year MBAs serve as coaches, and research librarians help with data.

The new frontier today is to help students think more about what they've learned from MAP and use mindful engagement to understand how they've changed and how they will apply their learning experience going forward.

"We continue to blur the line between learning and action," says Sanchez-Burks. "We want students to articulate their learning goals, both in the analytic and leadership dimensions, and view their experiences through that lens and think about those goals throughout MAP. We prompt them to talk about their experiences and push them to seek feedback. When they get back from their summer internships, we have a reorientation to go over their original goals and how their experiences changed them."
Ross also will make wider use of online learning for MAP teams, who often find they need a crash course on a particular subject.

"We're looking at a series of online modules that teams can use on demand anywhere in the world," he says. "Sometimes a team finds they need to get some fast knowledge on surveys or interview techniques, but they're in Lima, Peru. These online modules can give them a quick course wherever and whenever."

Sanchez-Burks says the goal is to continue to make Michigan Ross the innovation hub of transformational, experience-based learning.

"We have never rested on our laurels because we came up with MAP," he says. "We've constantly tested innovations, and we're going to introduce some game-changers going forward. Leading means you have to stay out front, and that's what we intend to do."