Dialing Up Digital: MBA students (left to right) Tiffany Tan, Evan Benway, Sherry Si, Dylan Fiesel and Dani Morgan are working with AT&T on a plan to transition from direct mail to digital marketing for AT&T Wireless products.

MBA Student Consultants Make an IMPACT
Projects Put Business Needs Front and Center

Agilent Technologies’ Electronic Measurement Group is a $3.6 billion business that over the past decade has seen a dramatic shift in its customer base from U.S., and Western European customers to predominantly Asia-based customers. Today, the majority of the division’s revenues are generated outside of the U.S., with an increasing concentration in China.

This represents not only a geographical shift, but also a profound demographic one. Asia’s technical customers are significantly younger than their western counterparts, and seem to make purchase decisions and interact with suppliers differently than Agilent’s traditional customer. The result: Agilent’s need to rethink marketing and communications strategies.

One of the biggest challenges is how to use social media to improve our business,” said Mike Kawasaki, eMarketing senior manager for Agilent’s EMG division. “We’re struggling with the best strategy in a business-to-business environment that is very mature but moving very fast.”

That’s where a team of five UC Davis MBA students—including two who speak Mandarin—is helping with a 20-week corporate sponsor project. They’re bringing fresh eyes and critical thinking aimed at providing Kawasaki with a strategy that has a positive return on investment.

Agilent is one of 10 consulting projects started this fall as a new, two-quarter core course requirement that has teams solving very real business problems. It’s the anchor for the Graduate School of Management’s new IMPACT curriculum. The IMP stands for Integrated Management Project—which expands a program that has placed more than 300 students as business consultants in up to nine projects a year since 2005. ACT stands for Articulation and Critical Thinking and is the foundation course of the first year.

Casting and guiding the student teams are two faculty advisors who bring plenty of experience and industry connections. Joe DiNunzio has 25 years of creative, technical and business leadership experience both as a management consultant and as a hands-on operating executive. Marc Lowe is a seasoned high-tech industry executive who worked for Adaptec and Hewlett-Packard, and is managing partner and founder of Praxis Ventures, a Bay Area consultancy that has raised $150 million in venture capital for clients.

The Agilent IMP team is delivering in spades for their client,” said Lowe. “The team is on track to go far beyond tactical social media recommendations expected from business students, and instead deliver an integrated and pragmatic marketing strategy with the potential to fundamentally change how Agilent connects with both its traditional and fast-growing, Asian customer bases.”

Valuable Lessons in Teamwork

Student Ken Wen said the demands of the project experience can’t be learned from case studies or other coursework. “The primary and secondary research we performed as a team has highlighted for me the different issues suppliers and customers face in a B2B tech industry,” he said. “Having personally delivered pieces of work to our sponsors at Agilent has shown me the challenges that I might face in a consulting role.”

Meanwhile, DiNunzio has been advising students working with AT&T to develop a migration strategy from direct mail to digital communications for its wireless products. It’s a digital marketing project for the largest communications holding company in the world by revenue.

“Consulting for a Fortune 50 company like AT&T is a great opportunity to apply the theories we cover in our course- work,” said MBA student Dylan Fiesel. “We’re able to take risks in these consulting engagements that we might otherwise be hesitant to take. This freedom enables more creativity and experimentation in our process, resulting in valuable insights for the client.”

DiNunzio, president of the consulting firm Fido Management, said seeing the breadth and the high-level of engagement in these 10 projects is satisfying. It marks the culmination of more than three years of groundwork that he was involved with that led to the School’s curriculum renewal—the most fundamental in its history—to better prepare graduates with real-world practice.

“The IMP projects are an excellent academic opportunity, and students are delivering fantastic results and value for our client sponsors,” said DeNunzio. “Students take the skills learned in the core curriculum and apply them in a powerful way. And it’s the foundation for building strategic relationships and strong and enduring partnerships with these companies.”

Lowe said students have described working with clients “like drinking from a fire hose” because they have to ramp up their understanding of the company’s problem, define the most important elements and determine how to address it in a very short period of time.

I’ve worked with well over 100 MBA student teams, and am continually impressed by the work students are capable of producing when they’re fully engaged and challenged to apply a broad set of skills to real problems,” said Lowe.