Haas School of Business

Leading Through Innovation

The Outsiders

The Outsiders: Student Insights Fuel Corporate Innovation

In a Hewlett-Packard conference room in Cupertino, a team of students stands ready with spreadsheets, financial models, and ... cartoons.

Challenged by the tech giant to develop ideas for enhancing cloud computing services, these full-time and evening-and-weekend Berkeley MBA students use simple black-and-white cartoons to identify HP customer archetypes in their strategy proposal: Right-on Rob, who self-sufficiently keeps his infrastructure humming; Behind-the-Times Ben, who is slow to update hardware and requires a good deal of HP support; and Nervous Nellie, who desires constant systems monitoring and double-checks everything.

The cartoons lighten the mood and elicit laughs but also address HP's customer mix in a way that hits the mark. Sue Barsamian, senior vice president and general manager of HP's Technology Services Support, likes the student ideas so much that she asks if HP can skip a proposed testing process and go right into pilot.

"We've already begun to incorporate some of your thinking into our plans," Barsamian tells the four student teams making presentations that day. "Several of your ideas represent new and different approaches; we are likely to proceed into a pilot as the fastest route to validation."

HP is one of three large corporate clients in the school's newly expanded Haas@Work class. Previously a five-week extracurricular program, Haas@Work has been transformed this year into a 15-week course, one of 10 fulfilling the new experiential learning requirement that is part of the new Berkeley Innovative Leader Development Curriculum.

Tools for Rapid Innovation

"At its core Haas@Work is about rapid innovation," says Dave Rochlin, BS 85, executive director of Haas@Work, who teaches the course with Lecturer Pierre Lowe, an innovation and strategy consultant. Haas@Work concentrates on innovation within large companies because that's where many students will ultimately work, Rochlin says.

"Haas@Work prepares students to be more effective in that setting, giving them the skills to gain support for an idea and move it toward market," he explains.

For clients, the aim is to provide a vibrant pipeline of ideas for development. "We feed into the need every company has for a flow of ideas moving toward market at all times," Rochlin says.

This spring, the inaugural Haas@Work class enrolled 60 students, who focused on expanding pipelines in cloud computing for HP; identifying new customer segments for Charles Schwab; and evaluating geographic markets beyond China for sports brand Li Ning, Haas@Work's first international client.

To deliver to their clients, students drew upon skills developed in core MBA coursework. This included ideation tools from the new Problem Finding, Problem Solving course, taught by design thinking experts and Haas Lecturers Sara Beckman and Clark Kellogg, and newly honed persuasion skills, culled from the course on leadership communication taught by Lecturer Cort Worthington.

"Producing innovation is remarkably difficult and risky. It's also quite intimidating," says Rehan Tahir, MBA 12, an evening and weekend student on the Charles Schwab team. "I learned that the solution to intimidation is ideation. I don't think I ever gave brainstorming the credit it was due–who would have thought that we would begin to solve problems with Post-it notes and Sharpies? It's genius, and done right, it yields significant results."

Insights, Ideation, Experimentation

But Haas@Work is about more than brainstorming. Students apply their Problem Finding, Problem Solving skills to generate new insights about their clients and the competitive landscapes (such as identifying archetypal customers of HP cloud computing services). From there, they develop a portfolio of game-changing ideas and a business model (in HP's case, built around the opportunities converting customers into Right-on Robs). Then students minimize implementation risk for the client by creating experiments to test assumptions (in one case, deemed unnecessary by HP).

Increased attention to insight generation and experimentation is critical to the Haas@Work experience, says Rochlin. "The rapid innovation process of Haas@Work certainly involves being creative and generating a large stream of ideas," he says, "but our clients are most able to use these ideas when we develop them with a reading of what they are good at and can feasibly execute."

Students examine client challenges from a variety of angles, including ethnographic exploration, such as observing how a customer uses a product, and questioning widely held industry beliefs or assumptions about customer behavior and channels. Rochlin says this exploration yields "white space" opportunities in areas that the client hasn't considered or believes it isn't equipped to succeed in.

"The students generated a lot of ideas, but were then able to boil them down to the best few–and get tighter with every iteration," says Julie Cabrales, HP's global service pricing manager. "This particular topic [cloud computing] is very dynamic in the market right now, so the students were constantly incorporating things they were learning and reading, as well as adjusting to our feedback–all in real time."

Not only did the students deliver strong solutions that the HP executives were excited to implement, but they also influenced how the executives think about the innovation process, Cabrales adds. "The students' perspectives really opened up my mind, sparking new ideas for how I approach my own work."–Valerie Gilbert

[Back to top]