Companies also gain from MBA internships
MBA students at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) know the true test of progress is not their acuity in class discussions or their ability to absorb the principles of market economics and strategic planning. It comes when they are out there, in the field, encountering the real-life challenges of a major organisation and proposing practical solutions.
For that reason, the HKUST Business School encourages as many students as possible to complete internships of around two months part way through their courses. These assignments, usually with multinationals and leading financial institutions, give an insider's view of different operating environments and, crucially, also allow students to put many of their newly acquired skills to the test.
'Being part of this programme has benefits for us as well,' says Sven Henrichwark, Singapore-based general manager for Asia Pacific at GE Healthcare. 'We see it as a responsibility to build local leaders for the Asian market, and taking MBA students on board as interns gives them exposure and real-life business examples to work on.'
He emphasises, though, that it is also a two-way street. The companies want to hear ideas, they are looking for alternative perspectives, and they are keen to understand the thinking and dynamics affecting business practice in other industries.
'It is good to have a few young folks who basically question everything,' Henrichwark says. 'They are not 'corrupted' by doing certain things in a certain way for a number of years. We are asked questions that lead to checking assumptions, and I find that very valuable.'
Each year, the company creates four to eight special projects for interns, designed to give scope for both hard and soft skills. One, for instance, might be to structure market research questions for six different countries and oversee quantitative analysis of the data collected. Another might be to conduct a profitability analysis across the entire database of contracts to understand which are most remunerative and why.
The projects are substantive, definitely not just academic exercises and, in different circumstances, might be handled by an external consultancy.
'What an intern experiences is not what they will see as an employee doing a nine-to-five job if they join us later,' Henrichwark says. 'We realise, though, that a lot of people doing an MBA need a firm operational grounding to understand the theory. Overall, the key is to maintain a direct line of mentorship and balance long-term development needs with shorter-term priorities.'
Tim Smith, chief executive of the north Asia region for global shipping company Maersk Line, is similarly enthusiastic about the mutual benefits that come from a well co-ordinated internship programme.
'It gives us an opportunity to interface with the students and they see what shipping is like and appreciate the international scale of the industry,' Smith says. 'But MBA students can also have a broader outlook than people we have trained ourselves, so bringing them in creates a balance, giving us different skill sets and a very good research resource.'
Typically, a summer internship with Maersk in Asia would involve working on matters relating to the country organisation and business plan. As an example, the frame of reference might be to identify new market opportunities in Korea, using in-house data, trade statistics and insights obtained during customer and office visits. The aim would then be to analyse growth potential, pinpoint target customers, and recommend best ways for the company to respond to market changes and developments.
'We want to give interns good experience away from the classroom and a chance to work hard and apply their learning in a practical situation,' Smith says. 'Sometimes, their questions are a bit abstract, but that can also stimulate our guys and get them thinking in different ways.'
One of the biggest eye-openers for students, he notes, is seeing the immense international reach of the shipping and logistics sector. This makes sensitivity to various cultures a key consideration and something to factor into corporate planning and new marketing initiatives.
'We are selling basically the same 'product' all over the world, but you have to see cultural differences in a practical business context and know how to deal with them,' Smith says. 'People think, act and work differently in their home markets, so you have to flex as necessary and avoid taking a rigid approach.'