Hands-On Innovation from a Distance: How Master in Management & Innovation Students Made an Impact During their Practical Phase
Applying your newly acquired academic knowledge to a real-life business problem is always a challenge. Throw in the fact that, due to the worldwide spread of Covid-19, Master students at the TUM School of Management had to get accustomed to their temporary employers, colleagues, tasks, internal company structures, measures and goals entirely remotely during their 2020 practical phase – this challenge reached a new degree of difficulty this past semester. Nevertheless, guided by their Professor Dr. Elisabeth Müller, Program Managers at the TUM School of Management as well as their company supervisors, our students not only exceeded expectations under these unprecedented circumstances, but furthermore managed to make a real impact.
“One of the most essential aspects of our project work was: getting everybody on the same page“, Tim Langendörfer reminisces, who recently spent a couple of weeks focused on solving managerial problems at Alfred Kärcher SE & Co. KG in the department Product Management & Marketing for Indoor Products. As part of his Master in Management and Innovation at the TUM School of Management, Tim and his fellow students were given the chance to deep-dive into a real-life business context. Ultimately, this came down to conducting scientific research, determining the right methodological approach and developing a strategy including recommended actions for the company management. Specifically: developing a marketing and communication concept for Kärcher in the growing market for cleaning robots.
Needless to say, that wasn’t easy at first. “A big challenge certainly was not being able to visit Kärcher and the supporting team on site due to the outbreak of the Coronavirus. Instead, we conducted the whole project work virtually and via online communication solutions. That kind of digital workaround was completely new for everyone in the team“, Tim admits. Thanks to the academic program’s practice-oriented approach, the team’s overall commitment as well as the guidance provided by Kärcher, Tim and his project partner Soham were able to make the transition quickly anyways. “Initially, we were introduced to the most important people from the Kärcher robotics team and were provided with all the important materials we needed. Through the group interviews, we were then able to gather a lot of valuable information for working on the objective questions. Plus, there were weekly feedback meetings to ensure a mutual knowledge exchange. And although we were not able to be on site due to the ongoing contact restrictions, we were welcomed with open arms and received continuous support as well as information from the Kärcher team that was helpful in dealing with the specific problems assigned to us.”
Petra Kowald from the department of Product Management and Marketing for Window Cleaning & Robotics at Kärcher shared Tim’s appreciation for the mutually fruitful collaboration: “I was very happy with the holistic approach the students used to come to their final recommendation in regards to how Kärcher should shape their robotic communication strategy“, she summarizes. “Both students were very motivated, focused and managed to handle their tasks responsibly, independently and without needing a lot of support or guidance.“ When asked about the long term usability of the conducted measures, Petra Kowald had this to say: “What really impressed me was the very comprehensive and holistic competitor analysis that Tim and Soham did. It was extremely broad and detailed and included all relevant topics of the analyzed competitors. Going forward, I’m sure this analysis will not only be used in regards to this project and the direct connection to the market entry of the next robot product line but for all future projects – at least as a template for future competitor analyses.“
Feedback like that, of course, acknowledges the students’ ambition to make a notable contribution during their practical phase. Without being able to go through the company’s usual onboarding process, staying in close (virtual) contact with their professor, Dr. Elisabeth Müller, was all the more important in order to achieve results like that. “I always ensure that each project work results in well-drafted managerial implications. Each student team is adding value to companies by suggesting steps that build on the analysis. Part of the managerial implications is also to discuss pros and cons of different solutions and to compare them“, she explains and adds: “My role is also to support students when methodological questions come up – for example concerning the design of a survey or about which management tool best to apply. In the end, I want to make sure that students are not overambitious and may have trouble meeting the deadline because of that. Also, for many teams the initial approach does not work out. Therefore, it is very important to stay flexible and be prepared to change plans in the first weeks of the project.“
How did that work out for our students at Kärcher? When evaluating the process as well as the team’s recommended actions, Prof. Dr. Müller was more than happy with the results: “I was impressed with what they were able to achieve in the limited amount of time. They did an amazing job in exploring a topic that was new for them and in applying a rigorous analysis to the given challenge. Also, I was really pleased that the collaboration between Kärcher and our students provided benefits for both sides and was generally perceived as a very enjoyable experience”. When talking to Petra Kowald from Kärcher, it became clear that for her and her colleagues it was enriching to obtain an outside view. The reason for that is simple: “Because students are not aware of all internal restrictions, they can think more freely. As soon as someone with an outside-perspective starts asking questions about “why” we do something in a certain way, that pushes you to take off the “Kärcher-glasses” and evaluate things in a broader context. So when Tim and Soham imposed those questions, they enabled us to see our project and the robotic picture from a different angle.”
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