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Integrated learning for companies and students

“Cross-training” benefits corporate-college partners

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This story was created by Fast Company for Grant Thornton as a part of a content series that explores the impact of innovation, culture and technology.
In spring 2019, teams of Indiana University (IU) graduate students entered a case competition. The task — Make recommendations for turning Bloomington, Ind., into a smart city. The work included considering which emerging technologies to use for gathering and crunching critical data, and once that data was collected and analyzed, determining how it could be used to help officials more efficiently manage city services, urban planning and community policing efforts.

Students came from IU’s Kelley School of Business; its School of Public and Environmental Affairs; and the School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering. According to Vijay Khatri — the Judith Norman Davis and Kim G. Davis professor of business analytics, and chairperson of the operations and decision technologies department at the Kelley School of Business — in this context, the groups that stood out were the ones that took an interdisciplinary approach. “The teams that had all three schools represented came up with the most thoughtful solutions,” he said. “They were able to approach the problem from three different perspectives.”

The collaborative approach to the case competition was no accident. Many of the students had been working together for several weeks as part of a new effort — the Grant Thornton Institute for Data Exploration for Risk Assessment and Management (GT-IDEA). The partnership aims to capitalize on an interdisciplinary approach to benefit both the students and the company.

Companies today are operating in an environment that’s dominated by data, where innovation isn’t relegated to the R&D department, where silos are frowned upon and employees routinely collaborate with colleagues across the business. Competitive companies need more versatile employees, and these types of interdisciplinary partnerships promoting integrated learning can help create well-rounded candidates.

“It’s like being a multitool athlete,” said Srikant Sastry, Grant Thornton national managing principal of Advisory Services and an IU alumnus who led the effort to create the GT-IDEA partnership. “The world will always need accountants. But the accountants who have some cross-training in technology and understand the business or regulatory world are becoming more valuable to companies.”   

The power of partnershipsPartnerships between companies and universities aren’t new, though as the GT-IDEA interdisciplinary program demonstrates, they are becoming more sophisticated. For decades, companies have sent employees to executive MBA programs hosted at partner universities and leveraged academic research capabilities in engineering, medicine, computer science and other areas to help fuel innovation at the corporate level.

The schools benefit, too. Corporate partners provide students with valuable opportunities to investigate different industries and potential career paths, and to get real-world job experience. They also bring financial help, endowing departmental chairs and funding research programs. A university research lab might cost $500,000 a year to run, between supplies, salaries for student researchers and other costs. A corporate partner might provide a relatively small slice of that funding — say, 5 to 10%, according to Anthony Boccanfuso, president of the University-Industry Demonstration Partnership (UIDP), an organization that helps universities and industry develop stronger bonds. “But for that lab, that’s a lot of money,” he said. “Industry can be a critical part of the funding equation.”

Today, corporate support has become even more critical for university researchers, as explained by Simone Grapini-Goodman, vice president of university strategic partnerships in the advanced technology collaborative at Optum, part of UnitedHealth Group. “We’re seeing an increase in research collaborations between academia and industry, given tighter government funding of academic research,” she said.

Optum is currently supporting research headed up by Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) Professor Roni Rosenfeld, an expert in epidemiological forecasting and head of the university’s machine learning department. In turn, Rosenfeld has been advising Optum on its development of an early-warning system for influenza and flu-related illnesses, based on CMU-developed technology.

“We can alert clinics in, say, Dallas that the flu is coming three weeks from now,” said Paul Nielsen, vice president of strategic operations in Optum’s advanced technology collaborative, where he also manages strategic partnerships with industry and research institutions. “They can then stock up on Tamiflu and start lining up extra staff.”

A deeper relationshipUniversities also are trying new strategies to cultivate more substantive — and durable — connections with corporate partners. In April 2019, Bentley University in Waltham, Mass., created a new position in its external-relations department that is focused primarily on expanding relationships with corporate partners. “I’d say the vast majority of colleges and universities don’t have this type of position yet,” said Janet Ehl, Bentley’s executive director of university career services.

Ehl said partnerships play a crucial role for Bentley students, giving them exposure to companies based in Boston and beyond. They provide internships and summer jobs, and corporate partners sit on the advisory board for Bentley’s HIRE Education Program, which customizes career-development plans for students.

Beyond career services, these relationships offer real-world experience that students won’t find in a classroom. In spring 2019, a corporate partner reached out to Bentley with a problem. It had collected reams of data but didn’t have in-house experts on data visualization. So Ehl contacted a professor in Bentley’s Human Factors in Information Design graduate program. “That professor was able to take this project into the classroom and have students work on it during a semester-long project,” she said.

For these partnerships to work, there has to be give and take, said Mary Davis, Bentley’s director of recruiting and employer relations. Corporate partners are encouraged to get involved on campus and interact closely with students. Bentley offers partners an “engagement menu” with a variety of opportunities for networking with students and faculty, and often invites corporate partners to speak to classes or work directly with faculty. “These can’t be one-off, transactional relationships,” Davis said. “They need to be more holistic.”

As the competitive landscape continues to change, companies and their potential hires must be able to adapt. These partnerships offer a symbiotic way for both parties to benefit — companies have a stronger pool of talent from which to draw, and students can develop the skills that employers want. And these days, interdisciplinary partnerships, such as the one between Grant Thornton and Indiana University, can uniquely prepare both students and companies to compete in a fast-changing job market. “In the last five years, the perfect candidate has changed,” Grant Thornton’s Sastry said. “Today, the perfect candidate is the one with the aptitude to learn things quickly, who can become a multitool athlete. That kind of versatility is really valuable for the students — and for the companies engaged in these partnerships.”

This FastCo Works article was created for and commissioned by Grant Thornton.

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Aurpon BhattacharyaAurpon Bhattacharya
Principal, Public Sector Advisory Services
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