May 7, 2013, by Vicky Story
Supervising an International Masters project – a UK perspective
This is the fourth and final in a series of special blogs about setting up and supervising international and inter-campus projects based on the experiences of staff at the Nottingham University Business School in the UK and Malaysia. In this blog post we look at supervising an international project from a UK perspective based on the experiences of Professor Vicky Story (Associate Professor in Marketing and Executive MBA Programme Director at the UK campus).
Both Duncan [Dr Shaw on the UK perspective] and Mohan [Professor Mohan Avvari on the Malaysia perspective] highlight the difficulties in getting firms to host MBA projects. However, as they also highlight, and based on my own experience supervising a number of these company-based projects, when they are done well, they are a real ‘value-add’ for our students for experience and for the companies involved in terms of generating useful business insights. Having been involved in the first cross-campus project it is clear that international cross-campus projects extend these benefits even further.
Keys to Success
Some of these have been highlighted in the other posts from those involved, but from my perspective there were a number of critical factors to the successful delivery of this international cross-campus company-based project.
Candidates and Supervisors
Candidates need to be committed to undertaking a company-based project, be interested in the topic, engage with the firm and its capabilities/vision, and have the capabilities to collect data and generate meaningful insights for the company. The supervisors need to be prepared to work as a team and to engage with the firm as part of the project. This is vital to ensure shared understanding is developed but also offers benefits in the form of company contacts and knowledge and increased interaction with other campus colleagues.
Clarifying Roles and Responsibilities
A key issue with a collaborative project like this is for the supervisors to delineate and clarify the roles of the students involved. Company-based projects, like all MBA projects, require students to undertake independent research and the output need to be the work of a single student. Therefore, some thought was required to ensure that the project brief, which was written as a single market entry strategy project, was divided in such a way as to create two distinct projects that, combined, would then deliver on the company’s brief. It was important to get this right, as the students needed to be clear about which parts of the overall brief fell within their project remit.
As the UK supervisor, I felt that it was important to personally visit the company. This meeting reinforced Nottingham University Business School’s commitment to the firm and the project and allowed a clear combined vision to be developed, fleshing out the outline brief, clarifying exactly what was feasible within the timescales and managing expectations on the process and outcomes, such as, time scales, company support, student visits to the company, and financial arrangements.
Meeting minutes were then circulated to ensure that the discussion and agreements made were disseminated to the whole team. The supervisors discussed the meeting and finalised our decisions regarding the scope of the two separate projects. The students gave views on which project they would prefer to complete and final agreements were reached on which student would complete which project.
I actually think it helped that Anita and I knew each other before the project, because it made it easier to get going. However, I wouldn’t say that this was necessary, particularly with the ease of which we can now communicate through such packages as Skype.
Once the separate projects were defined, the role of the supervisors was then to ensure that their student was clear on their individual project and to support them through the process – the same as other projects. However, because of the importance of the combined outcome of the projects, we needed to keep in contact with each other regularly regarding the direction that our student was going in and their progress. Furthermore, we also agreed to cover for each other’s holiday periods; to ensure that the students were never without guidance. While we both saw this interaction and cover as somewhat over-and-above usual procedures, we both agreed that it was important to ensure the smooth running of such a project and delivery of the company outputs.
Professor Avvari highlights the importance of complementary resources between campuses. These complementary resources are also important at a project level. The students have to work together as a team, recognising the different positions, roles and access to information. This knowledge sharing is vital to the success of the project.
The UK student had a very important role in visiting the company to generate a deeper understanding of their offerings, operations, and company objectives and then sharing this company knowledge with the student who is based at the overseas campus.
The overseas student then had more local knowledge about the countries being examined, which they needed to share with the UK student to support their understanding and familiarity with the market environment prior to and during the visit.
During the project, it is absolutely vital that the students work together. Early in the projects much of this interaction is focused on sharing material and knowledge. When designing the research methods, the students need to ensure that their separate sections will capture the necessary data to deliver on the company project brief. Later in the project it can be necessary to collect data jointly, to ensure that companies are not overtaxed with multiple visits.
Clearly, while I am stressing the need for the students to work together, it is also important to balance the requirements for independent student study (highlighted earlier) with the needs for delivering overall recommendations that the company. In the final stages of the dissertation, the students therefore focus on analysing the data related to their topic and presenting their own findings and recommendations.
Post Project Work
Collaboration and additional commitment from the students is required again after their projects are handed in, in order to combine the work from the individual projects to produce a coherent report to the client that draws the two strands together in such a way as to be able to offer actionable insights. Supervisors are also necessary at this stage to support the students in developing the report and presentation. Ultimately the company-based projects will only be successful if the information that is presented back to the client is in a format that they can digest.
While the additional efforts in generating the separate company report and presentation are not assessed, these activities are vital to the success of the project and offer a valuable skill development opportunity for the students in terms of producing a client report and presenting the findings, explaining and defending the conclusions drawn.
Support from the University and the Company
The interaction and data collection opportunities that are vital to succeeding in developing good project outcomes are made possible by the excellent financial support from NUBS and the company with regards to travel.
Furthermore, these projects require a reasonable commitment from the company to give time over to explaining the business to the student and in pointing the student to important reports, events, data collection opportunities. This firm commitment is essential to ensuring that the findings are focused on providing actionable recommendations that fit the companies objectives/focus. The more the company gives to the project, the more likely the students are to generate meaningful insights.
This is the one of a series of blogs about setting up and supervising international and inter-campus projects based on the experiences of staff at the Nottingham University Business School. Other blog posts in this series examined:
- Supervising up an international Masters project – a Malaysia perspective
- Setting up an international Masters project – a Malaysia perspective
- Setting an international Masters project – a UK perspective
This post is shared with the ‘Talking of teaching’ blog, the University’s blog looking at teaching culture and practice.