UNC Kenan-Flagler MBA Blog

Students learn the value of relationships in consulting project in China

September 27, 2010 By Jeremy Bergwerff

“We learned the importance of flexibility in conducting business in a different country.”

This was certainly a theme running through the different teams that went to China this summer as part of the Global Business Project (GBP)—a student consulting program sponsored by the Center for International Business Education and Research (CIBER). The program gives MBA students real world consulting experience on a global stage, offering students the opportunity to work with American multinational companies or international companies based in Brazil, China, Japan, and Africa . Students from CIBER partner schools form virtual teams to work on the project in the U.S., then in May, travel to the country where their client is based to deliver their work.

Hao Zhang of UNC Kenan-Flagler participated in the GBP-China program and was on a team tasked with helping SciSyn, a Chinese contract research organization (CRO) focusing on providing services and expertise to pharmaceutical companies. Since SciSyn was a start-up, the company asked the team to help create a strategy to expand its customer base. In addition, the CEO also asked the team to create a comprehensive marketing plan for the company.

The global theme even resonated on the teams as Hao was joined by Kate Breen also of UNC Kenan-Flagler, Yan Chen a Chinese international student from University of Kansas Business School, and Robert Eintertz of the Krannert School of Management at Purdue University.

The GBP program kicked off in March when participants from the CIBER schools convened in Washington DC to create the team, interact with their clients, and finalize a scope of work. Each team was also mentored by a faculty advisor.

IMG_1312Beyond the project, students also participated in an immersion of the culture. For Robert and Kate, it was their first trip to China, so before their departure, through the program, they participated in Mandarin lessons. Since Hao spoke Mandarin, he assisted his colleagues with weekly Mandarin chats.  “When you are learning the language, you are learning the culture as well” Hao mentioned.

In the weeks preceding the trip to China, the team worked virtually and experienced some of the challenges with that medium. It was particularly difficult sharing information and trying to convey an abstract idea when communicating through virtual tools such as a Skype or cell phone call. The teams responded to the challenge by learning to be flexible with each other’s perspectives, opinions and schedules. These early lessons in flexibility were also valuable for the in-country portion of the project as the team had to adjust to the the business practices of a different culture.

Perhaps one of the most unique things that the team learned about conducting business in China was how important relationships are in getting things done. One task the SciSyn team was asked to do involved filling a pipeline of potential clients. Given the physical location of SciSyn in a medically related industrial park, this would seem to be easy, but these potential connections couldn’t be established without the assistance of a local government official. This official was able to sanction the networking and the SciSyn team was able to proceed.

The need for flexibility and unique reliance on relationships was also a big factor for another GBP-China team. Meng Li and Wenfei Zhang, both of UNC Kenan-Flagler, anchored a team with a student from George Washington University and one from Columbia University. Their charge was to plot a market entry strategy for a North Carolina based company that wanted to sell products in China. Midway through their time working virtually, the liaison from the sponsoring company was let go from his employment and the team no longer had this important source of guidance.

The real story here is of perseverance and fortitude. After all the work they had accomplished in the US, they arrived in China missing a key component: the connections from the former employee. However, Li, Zhang and their team were able to lean on a complex network of family connections in China. They would not have been successful completing their project had they not known the right people to call. Li mentions that “no matter how much of a structured plan you have, it’s all based on relationships”

Meng Li also developed some important management skills. When their path seemed unclear and their connection to the sponsoring company was in question it would have been easy to give up. “There was nothing extrinsic that I could do. I said, ‘you own this, come back with a good product’. And they did.” Meng found that by giving her team members autonomy, their own pride of ownership provided the motivation to produce a quality output. “I’m surprised we all worked as hard as we did. When it all came down to it, we just wanted to do a good job.”

Flexibility and the importance of relationships: two of the key lessons from the Global Business Projects in China.

The Center for International Business Education and Research is comprised of 14 member schools around the United States charged with connecting graduate students with business problems around the world. This spring 14 students from UNC Kenan-Flagler joined 5 teams to tackle problems related to China. The target countries for 2011 CIBER Global Business Projects are Brazil, China, Japan, Thailand and Vietnam.