Imagine collaborating on a plan to launch a unique product or service with a team of people from different cultures, who have different native tongues, adhere to different business norms, and who live in various times zones around the world. To add to the delicate mix, the business plan and all communication required is conducted entirely in a virtual setting.
That scenario is exactly what every second-year Carlson Executive MBA (CEMBA) student and their Global Executive MBA counterparts from schools in China (China Executive MBA, or CHEMBA), Austria (Vienna Executive MBA, or VEMBA), and Poland (Warsaw Executive MBA, or WEMBA) face during what's called the Virtual Team Project (VTP).
During the VTP, students are put on teams (comprised of at least one representative from each school) and are challenged to work together over a seven-month period to devise a new product or service and develop a business plan to introduce it to an overseas market.
While each team's end-product is always unique, the foremost challenge faced by each student is overcoming and learning from the many, and oftentimes unpredictable, variables that are presented when collaborating on an international scale. The lessons they take away for their experience will serve them well in their careers.
"We firmly believe the Virtual Team Project is one of the best learning experiences we can offer given the international nature of our program," says Svjetlana Madzar, Carlson School senior lecturer who teaches the Carlson Executive MBA international business course that coincides with the VTP.
"I've heard from students who have worked with quite a few global teams in their business organizations, and they say nothing prepared them for the Virtual Team Project," says Madzar. "And the reason is there is no clear boss on the teams. The teams are culturally very different, and they have to decide who is going to take a leadership role, what are the norms, what matters, what's going to be the process, how are they going to make decisions. All of these things are very culturally sensitive."
Some of the 24 products or services devised by teams this year included a mobile charging service for electronic vehicles in Singapore; a plan to create microfinance opportunities in Brazil; and an online video game trading service in Europe.
Team Nine, comprised of Jean-Marie Berger, Gene Chilton, Diego Reyes, Cathy Liu, Henry Qi, Christian Grechi, and Barbara Topolska, quickly discovered the nuances of working both cross-culturally and virtually (they used Skype - audio only) on their VTP business plan for Hat'on, a business they devised that offers a collection of high-end hats for the follicly challenged.
"You encounter some challenges you don't expect because, well, the languages for one are different," says Berger, a CEMBA student. "Also, you don't know the people, you don't see the people, so you really have to rely on trust that they'd do what they said they'd do. On our team, when people said they'd do something, they'd deliver, which created a balance of interest which is a key to success."
"I've never had relationships with others 'across the pond,' so this was my first experience in an international scope," adds Chilton, a fellow CEMBA student. "It was very important for me to always take that step back and ask myself how they were viewing me."
During the team's discussions (which occurred every Sunday morning for one hour), they challenged each other's ideas. "But in a very good way," says WEMBA student Topolska, "because from being challenged you found that there are even better ideas and solutions."
"Also, from different cultures came different ideas," remarks Liu, a CHEMBA student. "From that I learned a lot about western culture. The experience helped me become more tolerant, open, initiative, creative, and positive in business and in life as well."
As in years previous, the Virtual Team Project concluded with all the teams gathering at the Carlson School in early May for students to engage in the weeklong residency program and for the teams to present their final proposals to staff members from all four schools.
The gathering also presented the first opportunity for team members to meet in-person.
"During the virtual phase, I tell them wait until you meet," says Madzar. "It's like a light at the end of the tunnel for them. It ends on a very high note and the students usually form strong friendships."
That was certainly the case for Team Nine members, says Topolska. "There is a difference in how you perceive people from Skype than face-to-face. When we finally met, it was very different. I found them even nicer!"
"You initiate the relationship online," adds Chilton, "but you solidify it when you meet. It works out great."
Team Nine solidified so well that, over dinner one evening, they felt comfortable enough to offer each other honest feedback on the team dynamics. "We just went around the table and shared our experiences with each other," says Grechi, a VEMBA student. "We laughed a lot; we enjoyed the downsides, the upsides. It was amazing that we could do that."
The pinnacle for all VTP team members was the opportunity to walk together in the Carlson School graduation commencement ceremonies. While it marked the end of their Executive MBA journey, members of Team Nine saw it as just another chapter in what they say is now a long-term friendship.
"Really, what we created through this VTP project is a real professional and friends network," says Topolska. "We learned a lot and we went through some fun and challenging times together. It was a great experience."
(Homepage photo, from left to right, are Barbara Topolska, Christian Grechi, Jean-Marie Berger, Gene Chilton, and Cathy Liu of Team Nine)