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Live case adds real-world urgency to business education

Business school partners with A+E Networks and Mazda Motors to offer unique learning experience for juniors

Binghamton University School of Management partnered with Mazda Motors in fall 2016 and is working with the organization this spring to give all of its juniors a live consulting experience, which is part of their coursework.
Binghamton University School of Management partnered with Mazda Motors in fall 2016 and is working with the organization this spring to give all of its juniors a live consulting experience, which is part of their coursework. Photography: Jonathan Cohen.

Chris Epple ’97 remembers sitting in marketing class, wondering what marketing professionals actually do on the job.

Epple, who is vice president of global marketing, content, strategy and social media at A+E Networks, makes it a point to come back to Binghamton and help answer that question for School of Management students. He has co-instructed a “Day in the Life” lecture with his close friend, Binghamton alumni and former PepsiCo colleague Marc Hanson.

Epple said their 90-minute talk provides students with a snapshot of their careers, from first jobs out of college to their current executive positions, and dives into the role of a marketer from entry level associate, to mid-level manager and executive.

“We focus on the practical side of business, offering students our actual experiences and strategies that could help them connect the dots in their own careers,” said Epple, who graduated with a degree in business administration and a concentration in marketing.

Going a step further, George Bobinski, an associate dean at the School of Management, approached Epple about working together on an in-depth project to challenge undergraduates to think beyond the traditional lecture and textbook materials.

Epple pitched producers at A+E Networks an idea: Challenge Binghamton University students to come up with an original network program that would attract younger viewers, and make the students’ recommendations part of their core coursework.

“We decided to take a relevant business case that A+E needed a younger perspective on and have SOM students devise solutions as part of their class assignment,” he said. “Our goal was to get innovative and fresh thinking from the students that the company could actually use.”

Students were assigned a “live case” in mid-semester that required them to plan — from pitch to pilot — the creative, financial and marketing aspects of the new show. And they had just over a week to do it.

“Experiential learning opportunities like these expand our students’ worldview and strengthen connections among peers, professors and corporate partners,” said School of Management Dean Upinder Dhillon. “The live-case project also gives our undergraduates the confidence that they can contribute to an organization in a real way.”

The class of junior accounting and business majors was split into teams of five. In nine days, they had to devise their recommendations, submit a final in-depth analysis and put together presentations supporting their solutions.

“This project emphasized market research, creativity and the numbers. The deliverables needed to be innovative and financially feasible,” Bobinski said. “In today’s business world, you have to be able to work across a business, not just in a particular function like accounting, finance, marketing or operations.”

Case in point

Binghamton is one of a few business schools to offer an integrative set of courses to teach students how decisions in one area of business can impact other areas.

Undergraduate juniors enrolled in the School of Management are required to complete these core courses in finance, management, marketing and international business which are colloquially known as the J-core, in the same semester.

According to Bobinski, programs traditionally use published case studies that capture a publically-facing problem in the business world (one that’s already been resolved) to challenge students with complex problems that involve multiple areas.

“I believe we are the only school in the country where all of our undergraduates have the opportunity to develop solutions to real problems for global organizations,” Bobinski said. “Employers say it’s important to offer experiential learning assignments that mirror real industries and real companies, so the school made a stronger push to integrate more relevant projects like the J-core live case into the curricula.”

Jade Cayne ’15, an international marketing coordinator at A+E, worked with Epple to facilitate the project including and acting as a resource to answer questions from students about the case. Cayne also, returned to campus during the week to serve as a resource to students coordinated the A+E panelists to judge the case, which included four other A+E Networks employees who are Binghamton alumni.

“Chris tapped in to my knowledge about what current students at the School of Management would find most interesting,” said Cayne, who received a degree in business administration and concentrated in marketing. “A+E wanted to make sure the case was relevant and within the scope of how students are learning today.”

School of Management faculty chose the top five teams from the junior class. These teams then presented their recommendations to A+E executives, including a senior producer at the network, through video teleconference.

“Students are able to put their work in front of premier employers, and the organization is offered diverse, talented students who are being guided by top faculty to help address company challenges,” Bobinski said.

“There is incredible value in getting unjaded, objective ideas,” Epple said. “Binghamton students also have an unbelievable aptitude that you’re not going to find at most universities.”

The top team from the case study traveled to A+E’s global offices in New York City the following spring to tour the headquarters. Prior to the visit, Epple and Cayne asked the students about the professions they saw themselves in after graduation, and he arranged one-on-ones for them with employees who worked in similar jobs at the network.

From entertainment industry to automobiles

How does a car company develop a premium image to reflect the quality of its cars and, at the same time, attract younger buyers?

In a live case presented this fall, students helped Mazda North American Operations answer these questions. Half of the junior class participated in the case during fall 2016; the remaining half will work on a related project this spring.

Mazda’s Northeast Region, located in Bridgewater, N.J., has hired nine Binghamton University graduates since 2014. These alumni-employer connections helped pave the way for Mazda to become the school’s newest partner in the J-core live case.

Benjamin Friedlander ’14, a district service manager for Mazda, who joined the company in 2015, said partnering with Binghamton creates a talent pipeline and enhances the company’s recruitment on campus. It also gives Mazda a fresh take on appealing to millennials.

“Mazda is interested in exploring how the company can shape its mission and values to appeal to the millennial customer base,” Friedlander said. “What better group to consult with on this than undergraduate students from one of the country’s best business schools?”

Seven alumni returned to Binghamton to launch the case in the fall.

“I remember being a J-Core student only few years back. Having gone through case studies as a student and now being a part of one as an employer, I see this project as a unique chance for students to immerse themselves in a real-world opportunity for a global company, and use their knowledge and experience to create and present a business plan to an upper-management team,” Friedlander said.

Jenna Dodd ’16, a district service manager, helped mentor students throughout the week as they worked on the deliverables. Dodd, a business major, started with Mazda as a regional operations specialist after graduation and was promoted to manager two months later.

“It feels good to help students and educate them about the career opportunities they could pursue,” Dodd said. “It’s surreal that I was in their shoes less than a year ago. As alumni, we want to show the students that they can get to the same place as us some day.”

Bobinski said the live cases have caused student engagement to reach an all-time high. “They are coming to office hours to ask more questions than ever. You can see how invested they are in the project and the results.”

“This case was one of the best experiences I have gotten as a student. We applied material — learned in and out of class — in a way that showed us how we can use this information to help businesses,” said Lyndsey Petrofsky, a junior majoring in business administration who was a member of the top team during the fall 2016 case.

Students from the top teams have the opportunity to interview for internships in Mazda’s Northeast Region office.

“The case made me think in ways I hadn’t before,” said Ryan Powderly-Gross, a sophomore majoring in business administration. “It put into perspective the reality that business decisions and company initiatives affect consumers and outsiders just as much as they affect the employees and shareholders, since all of these people are, in many ways, tied to the organization.”

Bobinski said the school wants to make the live case a staple of the undergraduate curriculum and is identifying new corporate partners for fall 2017.

“Our students are working on real problems facing real companies. There aren’t many college juniors who can say they’ve consulted a global organization while in school,” he said.

Epple believes experiential projects like the live case are beneficial for all stakeholders and could be part of the wave of the future in academic and professional processes.

“This partnership embodies ‘performance with purpose.’ We’re doing work that has value to the students’ learning process, it has value to the alumni giving back, and it has value to our business operations,” Epple said. “It’s a win-win-win.”

Last Updated: 8/30/16