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Online MBA students leave their computer screens behind to consult in Africa

Kelley Direct students tour the Diamond Trading Company Botswana facilities in Gaborone.

Kelley Direct students tour the Diamond Trading Company Botswana facilities in Gaborone.

Many professionals looking for a way to earn a graduate business degree while remaining at their companies have turned to online MBA programs such as Kelley Direct, offered by IU’s Kelley School of Business.

The long-term economic and professional benefits of earning an MBA degree are well documented, but students in most online MBA programs rarely leave the chair of their home, office or even a coffee shop where they sit in front of a computer screen and learn.

At Kelley, online education includes time on the IU Bloomington campus to connect with faculty and fellow students, as well as travel courses that provide global experience, including in emerging economies.

This summer, 20 students in Kelley’s online MBA and Master of Science degree programs traveled to Botswana, a sparsely populated nation in southern Africa, where many said they had a life-changing experience.

Phil Powell, faculty chair of Kelley Direct and a clinical associate professor of business economics and public policy, said the experiences in Kelley Direct are designed to develop executive skills in leadership agility, operational discipline, and emotional and cultural intelligence.

“Leadership is difficult to teach online, so our on-the-ground experience disproportionately focuses on faculty coaching students in these competencies,” Powell said. “Students must organize themselves to deliver a high stakes solution in a foreign environment with which they are not familiar. This forces students to overcome weaknesses they have in working with and inspiring peers.

“Solving difficult problems in Sub-Saharan Africa equips students to come back to their employer and be more effective managers and team players,” he added.

The course launched Kelley Direct’s Accelerating Global Immersion Leadership Education (AGILE) executive leadership curriculum.  Students in the new course were divided into five teams who were each teamed with a small business owner in Gaborone, Botswana. They learned firsthand about the joys and challenges of consulting with clients in a developing economy.

Students assess the Marine Garments manufacturing facilities in Gaborone, Botswana

Students assess the Marine Garments manufacturing facilities in Gaborone, Botswana

The clients included a veterinary clinic and pet store, a clothing manufacturer, a sorghum mill, an auto repair and body shop and a mining equipment manufacturer. Three faculty coaches, Brenda Bailey-Hughes, senior lecturer in business communications; Terrill Cosgray, executive director of Kelley Direct, and Powell guided students through the learning process.

The consulting course began with a trip to Washington, D.C., where the small business owners were brought from Botswana to meet with students. Together, the teams and business owners spent a weekend working to identify and agree on key challenges and brainstorm on how to satisfy them.

While there, Kelley Direct students also worked to help business owners better understand how similar kinds of operations functioned in the United States.

One team took Dr. Mmueledi Busang, owner of Integrated Veterinary Services, on a field trip to a local PetSmart store, which included a behind the scenes tour of the store’s Banfield Pet Hospital. Cosgray said the field trip spurred some immediate changes at Busang’s operations, such as pre-surgery packaging of the essential sterile tools needed for common surgical procedures.

After the kick-off weekend, each team spent the next 11 weeks “virtually” consulting with their client. Detailed financial and other business records were exchanged through multiple weekly emails. Teams held weekly phone, Google Hangouts or Skype calls with their clients.

After three weeks, each team felt confident that it had enough information to begin putting together a consultation project plan, which required agreement by each client on three to five specific and actionable deliverable goals provided at the conclusion of the course. Naturally, plans continued to be refined throughout the summer.

The course culminated with a week in Gaborone Aug. 11- to 16. Teams spent four full days at their business sites as well as meeting with some of their clients’ customers, suppliers and competitors. Local media covered their visit.

“Students quickly discovered they needed to recalibrate their recommendations when coming face to face with the daily realities of their business owners,” Cosgray recalled.

For example, the team working with Amogelang Sorghum Milling discovered that the owner was unnecessarily leasing a building for his operations when he owned another structure. They recommended that he end the lease and move operations to another building to cut costs and increase profits. With their pre-trip plans to expand his customer base and this new discovery, the team predicted a 50 percent increase in profits within a year for Amogelang.

Botswana

Botswana

“I think that the opportunity to function out of my comfort zone is always a good learning experience. My ability to communicate more effectively was enhanced because I had to slow down and think more carefully about what I wrote and said,” said Kelley Direct student Kenneth Buckwalter, a physician practice manager for radiology at IU Health in Indianapolis.

“Lessons learned abroad come home with you and enhance your ability to communicate in a work environment. Furthermore, the consulting process from soup to nuts was illustrated in this course, which gave me an opportunity to think about consulting as a future career path.”

Buckwalter also said the experience is valuable as he practices as a radiologist now and later in business.

“It is good to see business from a different perspective and to be appreciative of everything we have here in the U.S. We have many first and second generations in the U.S. in our work environment,” he said. “Even if I never work overseas, the enhanced cultural sensitivity we learned from the Botswana experience makes it easier to interact with people from culturally diverse backgrounds.”

But it wasn’t all work for the students. They spent a morning at Diamond Trading Company Botswana. Holding an eight-kcarat uncut diamond in their hands was an unexpected highlight. Students also went on an early evening game drive and dined by the light of a campfire in the bush at Mokolodi Nature Reserve.

The week concluded with each team making final presentations to their clients followed by a celebratory dinner with students and clients. Powell congratulated students on their work, telling them they had made a significant impact on the Botswana government’s goals to diversify their economy beyond the diamond and beef industries.

Botswana’s Local Enterprise Authority is funded to help small Botswana businesses executive a strategic plan for profitability. They employ over 90 coaches that work nationwide with business owners who are new to entrepreneurship.

“Imbedded with each of our MBA teams were the LEA coaches that work with each team’s clients. Not only did students help their clients, but they also taught their LEA partners how to be better coaches,” Powell said. “The Local Enterprise Authority was so impressed with the Kelley School consulting framework that it wants to internalize it as a process in the way the agency works with all Botswana businesses.

“Next year’s iteration of the course will not only focus on helping another group of clients, but also on helping LEA develop its capacity to spur small business growth nationwide.”

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