Catching them young

Companies are tapping B-school talent for solving their business problems

Mohammed Kagdi can barely conceal the excitement in his voice as he says, “Our solution is a shop assistant system for Ezone. It helps customers conduct initial research as well as in-depth comparison of models.” Kagdi is your average B-school student, who is pursuing an MBA from Symbiosis Business Institute of Management in Pune. While most of his peers still read about business challenges in theory, he feels privileged to have worked on on a live business problem for retail major, Future Group. Now, this only came to pass because of Future Group’s recent strategy to tap B-school talent through a project called Ground Zero. B-school students from various colleges were invited to compete, and the top-10 ideas were shortlisted to work on live business problems. 

Kagdi recounts his team’s Ground Zero journey. “We were given a set of topics to choose from. We selected Ezone and how to make it a more customer-oriented store?” he says. Other topics were around Future Group’s other properties such as Big Bazaar, Brand Factory, etc. Kagdi’s team had noticed that when the youth decide to buy a high involvement product like a smartphone, it goes through a filtering process. They do the initial research, go to the store for touch and feel, compare prices, and then make the buying decision. “In this process, there is a role of influencers and online media, and the store is part of this circle, too. We identified the entire process, which a customer goes through when he buys something. We then tried to incorporate each and every solution in the process within Ezone itself,” shares Kagdi.

Since Kagdi’s team was selected by the Future Group, they had access to the Ezone network. They studied three stores in Pune, and one each in Bangalore, Delhi, and Chandigarh. They interacted with customers and store managers before coming up with a prototype. Kaustubh Sonalkar, chief people office, Future Group delves deeper into their approach. “As a retail organisation, we believe the industry is not changing by the day, but by the minute. Consumer expectation is changing at that pace as well and we need to build our retail outlets in line with that,” says Sonalkar.

While 2016 is the first year for Future Group’s Ground Zero, they have been running an on-the-job learning programme called FBX since 2014. When they launched Ground Zero, Sonalkar and his team felt they would get 100 or 200 applications but they were overwhelmed by 5,000 applicants. He says theirs is not a case study competition, the typical route taken by most companies when engaging with B-schools. “We get the guys to the stores as they are best placed to talk about what they expect from us, the new ideas they have in mind, their pain points and the solutions,” says Sonalkar. Future Group will own the products/ideas that emerge out of this exercise and five ideators will get either a pre-placement or an offer to join the company. 

More the merrier
The posterboy of Indian retail has company in old warhorse, Titan, which launched its case study competition Titan Elevate in 2014. The idea was to attract talent and solutions in one shot. Lakshmi Toshniwal, talent acquisition lead, Titan says, “Case studies are nothing but a live business challenge that we face or problems, which senior leaders were thinking about.” 

She details the topics around which studies have been done in the last three years. “Two years ago, it was competing in e-commerce. Last year, how do we sustain the Fastrack brand? This year, the theme is positioning Tanishq in the wedding market,” shares Toshniwal. Without going into the specifics she says, “There were a lot of product ideas, i.e. which products can be sold under Fastrack to make it more appealing to the next generation in the wearables category. A very broad idea that did come through two years back was omni-channel. It wasn’t new for us, but we certainly started pursuing omni-channel,” says Toshniwal. 

Up north, on Gurgaon’s Golf Course Road, Coca-Cola has a chic corporate office. Every other wall reminds you where you are. Sameer Wadhawan, VP-HR, knows that the marquee brand has its own charm when it comes to attracting talent. “Coca-Cola has been the preferred employer at campuses, but we wanted to engage with B-schools throughout the year. And ‘Showcase’ became our strategy. We had a broader objective and wanted to have many more company ambassadors on the campus,” says Wadhawan.

Showcase is Coca-Cola’s annual B-school case study competition. It involves picking up a company-relevant case study and asking B-school teams to competitively present it. Coca-Cola also engages the faculty by asking them to evaluate the ideas at the first level. While hundreds participate, five to ten finalists are flown to the corporate office where they present their solutions to the leadership team. They also get to spend a day with the cola major’s ad agency and get to see how Coca-Cola campaigns are created. 

“We choose case studies which are topical. Last year, we tasted huge success with Coke Zero, which we launched through Amazon, and the start-up scene was buzzing as well. So, we asked them to look at what is the most relevant e-commerce model for Coke?” says Wadhawan. He points out the merits of engaging fresh brains. “When I am dealing with a problem, however dispassionate a view I take, I live and breathe Coke. My view will be influenced by the environment. When these young kids look at the problem, they look at it from multiple lenses. That’s the value addition they bring in. Since they don’t have overspecialisation, they look it from a very holistic angle,” he says. 

Future group’s Sonalkar seconds Wadhawan’s view. “When you look at things from an everyday perspective, you always believe what you are doing is right. These young kids have no inhibitions. When they entered the store, they looked at it from a consumer’s perspective. Their lens was completely different. They look at every angle from a fresh perspective,” he says. 

It’s a win-win
Coca-Cola has also been running ‘Mantra’ as a part of its strategy to engage with B-schools. Mantra is a two month internship programme for B-school students, but has proved to be valuable for the company. The interns are put on live business problems and mentors are assigned to each of them. Twenty interns participate each year, and around five are absorbed in the company. Wadhawan gets specific about a solution that resulted out of the B-school engagement. “We have solid waste management projects. The recycling of PET bottles by crushing it through a specific technology was suggested by a student,” he reveals. 

The B-school engagement strategy clearly seems to be working for Coca-Cola. The significance of this engagement can be gauged from the fact that such competitions are not reduced merely to an HR exercise, as top management takes time out to participate. Titan’s Toshniwal says, “The MD and CEOs of all business divisions have participated in the Titan Elevate final during the last two years.” 

But the Future Group goes the extra mile. “The top-10 ideas were presented to Kishore Biyani and from it, he picked the top five. There is an implementation committee but he will himself mentor the winners during execution,” says Sonalkar. 

The group thinks that it is best that the students continue to work on projects ideated by them during the competition. “While the first-year students are at the institute, they will start working with the CEOs, and Biyani will be mentoring them. When they come on board, it will be best for us to get them to follow-up on their own ideas,” says Sonalkar. The

When Kagdi is asked what appealed to him more — the opportunity to address pain points in a live business or a job with a good company — he chooses the middle path. “It’s a combination of both — futuristic solutions and a great job opportunity. We learn from corporate competitions, because our books get outdated fast. No B-school has a course on how to present your idea in less than five minutes to the top management. At times, that can make all the difference,” he says. 

If such engagement works for students, the companies, too, are learning from students no less. “India, as an economy, will continue to have multiple channel growth — both offline and online. We continue to focus on all of them. Specifically, we are currently putting in place Coca-Cola’s digital strategy by incorporating the inputs we got from students. Our CIO is driving the digital strategy,” beams Wadhawan leaving no doubt that it works both ways.