With its emphasis on the global economy, the USC Marshall School of Business provides many programs to get its students out of the classroom and into the wider world. But for a select group of MBA students, that experiential learning opportunity is a high-stakes, high-pressure, real-world consulting gig.
On Nov. 6, 10 second-year MBA students will present the findings of an exhaustive, yearlong research project directly to the 63 business executives on the APEC Business Advisory Council (ABAC) at an annual summit in Beijing.
APEC is a confederation of 21 Pacific Rim economies that encourages economic cooperation and promotes free trade among its members, which include China, Canada, Japan and the United States. Since 2003, USC Marshall has been the only business school with students who conduct research for the business arm of this group — ABAC.
“We talk to them, and they talk to the leaders,” said Carl Voigt, professor of clinical management and organization at USC Marshall and the ABAC team’s faculty director.
ABAC members meet with heads of state and other policymakers soon after receiving the USC Marshall team’s final report.
Hours of exhaustive analysis
This year, the ABAC team was charged with investigating impediments and incentives to foreign direct investments in seven service areas, including telecom and information and communication technology, retail and restaurants, transportation/distribution/logistics, accounting services and life insurance.
To tackle that wide-ranging topic, the ABAC team spent about 4,000 hours interviewing business owners across these industries in each of the 21 APEC economies, collecting and analyzing their data, preparing a final report and practicing to present that report.
We looked at a topic that a lot of very smart people have already looked at, but we did extensive secondary research.
Jenny Dare Paulin
“We looked at a topic that a lot of very smart people have already looked at, but we did extensive secondary research and conducted more than 360 interviews,” said ABAC team leader Jenny Dare Paulin. “We try to get a business voice on these issues and put together a report that business leaders can then put in front of policymakers.”
Among the team’s findings:
Services remain overly restrictive with no evidence of change. Restrictions on investment in services are more limiting than manufacturing and even agriculture. There is no evidence of concerted efforts in APEC economies to liberalize services.
Technology is changing services. Technology is enabling services, previously delivered by physical presence, to potentially become tradable services. Policies that do not recognize these fundamental changes risk increasing transaction costs and harming the competitiveness of entire services sectors.
Human capital frustrations: Access to domestic skilled talent, and restrictions on movement of people, were found to be major concerns in all services sectors. Obtaining working visas and the lack of mutual recognition of qualifications were found to be particularly problematic in developed economies.
The full report breaks research out into industry categories and offers detailed recommendations in each area.
The partnership between ABAC and USC Marshall began in 2002, when ABAC, which does not have its own research capabilities, decided to approach business schools with the idea of partnering with students for research. Without being able to offer compensation, many schools declined ABAC’s request, but Voigt recalls that USC Marshall saw another benefit: It was a natural fit.
“This project complements the Marshall mission,” Voigt said. “We try to contribute to things that promote the prosperity of society. The research the students do directly contributes to economic growth within the APEC economies.”
Making the cut for this team is no small feat. Students must submit their resume and are interviewed by past team members and Voigt.
“The past ABAC team picks the next ABAC team because they know what goes into it,” Voigt said.
That includes many hours over and above their already rigorous MBA studies. Students this year conducted 368 hourlong interviews, for example. In the weeks leading up to the APEC seminar, the work is almost around the clock, the students said.
“It’s intense,” said David McManic. “But it’s very worth it. It’s a pretty serious thing to have on your resume.”
Paulin added: “ABAC was one of the reasons I decided to come to Marshall. I don’t think there’s another program that sends people across the world to meet with top business leaders from 21 countries and that ends in a substantial contribution.”