Leading the Way with Virtual Immersions at SMU Cox: A Conversation with Arjan Singh

Arjan Singh, Adjunct Professor at the Cox School of Business

The novel coronavirus pandemic has forced businesses, schools, and the public sector alike to pivot and adjust to a new way of life. Arjan Singh, Adjunct Professor at the Cox School of Business, believes that things will probably not return to as they were pre-COVID. Virtual business will persist, even after things go “back to normal.”

This is because businesses are learning there are upsides to a virtual business world, and will likely want to make some of these changes permanent.

Singh is a strategy and competitive intelligence consultant who has extensively worked with Fortune 500 clients in Europe, the United States, and Asia. He’s been teaching MBA students at various universities for the past 14 years and performs in-house training for corporations.

This has given him a global perspective which heavily influences his teaching style and the insights imparts to his students. His teaching sheds light onto the inner workings of corporations. He makes it a point to give SMU Cox MBA candidates practical data points versus theoretical teaching. His role at SMU Cox is the lead Professor of Online MBA Immersions where he produces experiential learning consulting projects that happen a few times each year. During immersions, students meet up in person at international or domestic locations and are assigned real-world projects.

Singh says theory gives an idealistic approach, whereas practical application shows how processes actually work in a messier reality. He says the point of the immersions are to give students practical toolkits that will be relevant in their business life.

How did you come to work at SMU Cox?

AS: I actually came to SMU Cox through a similar immersion project, but I was on the client side at a large supply chain factory in Hong Kong. Which is where I met David Jacobson, who is the Executive Director of the Online MBA & MBA Direct programs. When Jacobson moved to the Cox School of Business he called me up and said: “Remember that student project we worked on? How would you like to be on the other side? And become faculty?” I jumped at the chance to play a more active role in helping students learn about business through immersing them in real-life situations. The first Online MBA Immersion happened in December of 2019. Around 50 participants flew to London, and over a four-day period, met and consulted with two different real-world clients, developed strategies, and presented to them.

What is the purpose of the immersions?

AS: The in-person immersions are for students to learn consulting skill sets while working for and delivering value and actionable insights, for real clients. It helps kickstart students’ careers with hands-on practical experience.

Both of the clients in London were NGO’s. One of the clients was TACT, the largest foster care charity in the UK which has been extremely busy since the onset of COVID. The other was the Institution of Civil Engineers. The project was how to measure impacts on the proposed High Speed Rail program in the UK and how to use projected impacts on various stakeholders to guide strategy. A lot of the deliverables that the students came up with, the foster care association ended up implementing.

They were so grateful for the work and the students were able to see the tangible impact of their consulting efforts. It is quite rewarding when working with social impact companies, that may not be able to hire professional consultants themselves, and our MBA students are able to fill this need.

During the pandemic, how have you been conducting the Immersions?

AS: The world is moving towards virtual and it has been initiated by the pandemic. So, when we had to move out an immersion, we thought, how do we give students the toolkits that they can not only survive, but thrive in a virtual world? We decided that the event would take place virtually.

The future of work is going to be virtual, so holding a practical immersion in the virtual space gives students the experience of consulting virtually, which is going to become more and more important.

The virtual immersion enabled the students to consult with clients virtually, collaborate with each other virtually, and present virtually. It was a great success and the feedback from students was that they enjoyed meeting their other MBA cohorts, even virtually, and actually working with them. And of course, the virtual format allows us to continue bringing in high-caliber speakers and organizations to work with SMU Cox students. We’ve had Shelly Porges (Founder and Managing Partner at Beyond the Billion & The Billion Dollar Fund for Women) and Cynt Marshall (CEO, Dallas Mavericks), to name a few.

What makes you believe that the future of work will be virtual?

AS: The future of work is definitely virtual. A lot of companies have already said that once the COVID-19 situation goes away, that they may not go back to physical offices. They have been forced into a virtual situation and have quickly learnt its benefits.

For example, one of the largest law firms in the world said, “Hey, we’ve estimated we’ll save $300 million if [w]e don’t have offices, and we found that people can still do work.”

There has also been this whole mass exodus of people from metropolitan areas, they are learning they can work from anywhere, as long as they have a good internet connection. The world is moving towards virtual and it’s been kick started by this whole situation.

What lessons will you be taking from holding Immersion events virtually?

AS: This has opened the doors for experimenting with online experiential learning. In October there was another virtual immersion taking place, and it took the form of a virtual war game.

War games are competitive intelligence scenario planning. They are a tool to help business leaders think through their strategy and external moves of stakeholders in a controlled environment.

In this instance, it was themed ‘The battle for the cloud’ and groups of students represented companies like Amazon, IBM, Microsoft, Google, Salesforce, SAP, Oracle, and Alibaba. The students pretended to be working within these companies, they were presented with a scenario, and they had to build a strategy of how the company they represented should react to it.

This allowed the students to work through complex problem-solving in a virtual environment.

How do companies ensure they thrive in virtual business environments?

AS: Companies have always strategized how they should react in uncertain scenarios to achieve the best possible outcome.

If you don’t know what the future is going to look like, you build scenarios around the possibilities. This year is a perfect example of a scenario that no one knew was coming, but the companies that are thriving are the ones that prepared for the unknown.

How do companies prepare for the unknown?

AS: The assumptions with which business strategies were made six months ago, those assumptions are gone, and we hope immersion courses like these teach students how to question strategy, to formulate strategy, and really understand the thinking behind strategy and the assumptions behind it.

Even with the current global pandemic, there are still so many instances of opportunity in every industry. It just depends on how much individual businesses are willing to pivot and how much they prepared for the unknown. We hope other businesses have been able to adapt to this unprecedented time in history, similar to how SMU Cox has adapted their immersion curriculum.