At Indiana University, 25 students thought they were signing up for a standard class on business processes, redesigning workflows for a mock U.S. auto parts supplier using SAP software. Fifteen students at the Univer-sity of Brandenburg in Germany were taking the same course, doing the mock work for a German automaker. Around the 11th week of the course, the professors threw them a curve.
Students came into class to learn the German carmaker was buying the U.S. supplier. All the processes they had worked on had to be redone to meet the needs of the new company, and the two groups of students, who had never communicated before, had to work together. "They needed to streamline, and they were dealing with time zone differences, language and cultural barriers, and process differences," says Ashok Soni, who helped teach the class as chairman of the operations and decision technology department of Indiana's Kelley School of Business. "This was a real-world, global situation."
The students worked in eight-person teams, using E-mail, collaboration tools, and videoconferencing. There were plenty of missteps, as when the students in Germany became frustrated when those in the States didn't respond to E-mail for five days. The U.S. students forgot to explain about their Thanksgiving holiday. "They were dealing with real cultural barriers," Soni says.
Businesses played a role, too. At the end of the course, each team presented its case to a board--a panel of executives from SAP, as well as several companies that had gone through their own mergers and acquisitions, including General Mills, British Petroleum, and John Deere. Each team presented how it would address its five or six processes (such as order entry and human resources) and justify how they needed to be changed and how the software tools would be used.
Some of the companies ended up recruiting students who took part in the project--the Indiana students graduated with business degrees and specialties in business process management; the Brandenburg students have degrees in information technology. "The class was really very valuable," says Daniel Conway, a professor who taught the class in the United States. "It was the first time I'd ever had parents E-mail me and thank me."
And they'll appreciate that the schools embraced IT as an exciting global career, rather than one dying under global competition.
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