How One Strategic Marketing Professor is Breaking the Mold of “Production Line” Education
“Every student goes through the K-12 production line process,” Professor Jim Kourmadas, Visiting Clinical Lecturer of Marketing at College of William and Mary, said. While the person is expected to come out as a more developed individual, when it comes time to graduate and get into the workforce, students often have trouble relating their education to the context in front of them in their professional lives.
“Bear with me here,” he said with a chuckle. “The way that people used to look at education resembled more of a factory production line. Imagine the student is the raw material, and the University is a factory. The purpose of the factory (or the University) is to take the raw material (the student) and add value (knowledge) to create a finished product: an educated graduate,” Jim said. At the end of this process, the impetus is on the student to take their newly found knowledge and apply it to the workplace.
The intellectually messy workplace often provides confusing (or no) feedback on student performance. There are rarely “right” answers to a business problem, but there are usually better ones and worse ones. Jim argues one of the most important aspects, especially for Marketing professionals, is to develop a keen ability to critically analyze a situation from different points of view, synthesize solutions, and dynamically communicate ideas with a sound logical rationale.
Jim recalls receiving notes from former students after being in the workplace for a while.
One student described a work situation where everybody on a team had a different idea and solution. Everybody was “solution-minded,” advocating for their concept rather than listening and synthesizing different points of view, and the team conflicted.
The student said the situation reminded them of the team business strategy simulation project from his course. With pride, the student told Jim, “I was ultimately able to re-frame the problem in a way that made sense to everybody on the team, and we got through it!”
The bottom line? Soft skills are critically important to a Marketer to lead an organization.
While Jim noted the impact of social media and the instant gratification with text messages, he stands by the fact that “by and large, a majority of a person’s professional life today is spent interacting with others through email.” Email is still the medium of choice for detailed interactions between people. And it’s the go-to for documenting essential tasks in the workplace.
This realization eventually led to a natural partnership with Capsim and Jim’s creation of CapsimInbox: Strategic Marketing. The microsimulation breaks the traditional production line process and immerses the student in plausible real-world, high-urgency situations.
The value of an email-format simulation transfers directly over to skills in the workforce and helps students reprioritize and triage the responsibilities necessary for the corporate environment many students will face after graduation.
From optimizing numerical variables to optimizing the student learning experience.
Jim worked for several years as VP of Strategic Marketing at McGraw Hill Higher Education (MHHE). “While most instructors still use traditional textbooks as the backbone of their courses, the textbook is becoming a less and less critical part of the course,” he said. That’s why in recent years, the education content providers created separate digital product divisions.
“The creation of a textbook has always been a largely digital process, with the printing of a physical textbook at the very end,” Jim said. “The printed textbook is simply a highly organized and efficient vessel for consuming high stakes content in a structured tutorial kind of way.”
High stakes meaning employers down the road will expect that students comprehended the content and assessed knowledge. Jim claims the “assessability” of the content is the crucial difference between educational content and any other casual content, like entertainment.
“Every instructor I know struggles with the questions; what should I expect a student to know as a result of reading this chapter? Or conversely, how can I test this on a quiz or exam?” Jim said. Courses are required to cover more topics and adhere to more measurable learning objectives with requisite assessments. “There’s not enough time to cover things you don't intend to assess,” Jim said.
For years, MHHE tried to deconstruct textbook content and provide it digitally in different ways for various learning styles. “The challenge comes down to providing content in two fundamental styles, Tutorial or Search,” Jim said.
In Jim’s case, when he’s learning a new subject, he tends to want to jump in and try an assessment first and then go back and Search for specific information on parts that he did not fully understand.
“The more often and more quickly you get feedback on your comprehension of a subject, the faster you will learn it. After working in publishing and providing digital content for more than a decade, I came to realize the value of frequent and rapid feedback,” Jim said.
Life Before CapsimInbox was: “Well... Static.”
Life was fine before CapsimInbox, but something was missing. Jim used case studies and the case method of teaching, which is very powerful. The case method of teaching was in fact how Jim learned as a student.
“The problem, of course, is that traditional cases are static,” Jim said. “A case is a story of a company at a point in time that is at some kind of cross-road. The beauty of this is that you can use the case and student analysis in a controlled way to illustrate one or more learning objectives.”
The problem? Companies, markets, and relevant issues are changing all the time. Students can find crib sheets, cliff notes, and canned presentations on almost every popular case on the internet.
Over time, several of Jim’s fellow instructors transitioned more to the idea of using “Live Cases,” taking current companies with current situations and creating structured conversations and analysis around a particular situation. Live cases can be a powerful way to engage students in real-world examples, but they also come with their own set of issues:
- Mapping live cases into course learning objectives is tricky. You’re not sure exactly what kinds of issues are going to end up dominating the situation.
- The real results of a company decision may take years to manifest.
- If you choose a well-known or popular company among students, it is often hard to get students past their preconceived notions about the company.
- Often, publicly available information about a company does not give students an honest inside look at the situation at hand. You end up speculating about what people are doing and why.
Existing simulations didn’t compare.
Algorithmically-based business simulation games in marketing have been around for more than 25 years.
“But by and large, they have tended to be over-designed and heavyweight,” Jim said. The typical simulation involves a student or team of students taking market data, making a set of business decisions sequentially, getting results, and making the next round of decisions until the simulation is over. The students receive a final matrix of scoring that reflects the performance of their sequential choices.
The downside of simulations? “They often don’t feel real to the student,” Jim shared. “The simulations that I used in class were mathematical optimization models with a bunch of decision variables. What I found was that most students tended to describe the experience as sterile or like ‘gaming.’”
Jim realized students were more fixated on figuring out the algorithm and trying to “beat the machine.” He always had a couple of students or teams that would make a series of drastic decisions to see what would happen or see if there was some way to blow up the game. As expected, the simulation did not reward them, and Jim doubts the students learned much.
“Practically speaking, implementing a simulation like this in a marketing class is logistically time-consuming for both the student and instructor,” Jim said. The scope of the participation ranges from days to weeks. “That’s why many marketing professors don’t use them,” Jim began, “they demand too much time and effort for the learning objectives achieved.”
Jim used traditional simulations in Marketing for a while but ultimately decided that “the juice was not worth the squeezing.” Traditional simulations are great for addressing the interrelationships between marketing decision variables, “but they do not attempt to address the actual personal experience of making and implementing decisions, nor do they focus on how or why the decisions are made,” Jim said.
“Simulation games generally don’t leave a lasting impact on students. People tend to remember things that they have feelings about: like soft skills. CapsimInbox was the first simulation that I saw trying to address soft skills.”
When Jim discovered CapsimInbox, he thought, what a neat way to create an immersive, high urgency environment where instructors can put students through the paces of doing research, gathering input, and making marketing decisions with “real” people immediately reacting to their decisions. With CapsimInbox, the goal was to assess the student on what they decided, why they believe they are right, and how they arrived at their conclusion.
Jim also wanted to leave ample space in the simulation experience for interaction between the instructor and the class. The idea is that the simulation presents an interesting straw-man situation for the instructor to work it like a case. Jim wanted the story to contain several broad intertwined themes like evaluating opportunities, product planning in the context of segmentation, positioning and targeting, applying marketing research, lifetime value of a customer, and the changing external environment — all with an overarching decision looming.
Do we continue as a niche brand, or should we become a Private Label Manufacturer for Amazon? Much like life’s challenges, there are no obvious correct answers in Jim’s simulation. The real value comes in the student developing a thought process for these decisions and communicating a sound rationale.
A “realistically and plausibly overwhelming” experience
“I tried to make CapsimInbox: Strategic Marketing realistically and plausibly overwhelming,” Jim said with a chuckle. “The company has a strong culture because every company has a culture, and it’s important to understand the culture in the context of marketing decisions.”
Jim presented students with scenarios that may seem straightforward on the surface but usually are not that simple. “Nothing in life is ever that easy. Day in and day out as someone working in marketing, you’re making subtle, little changes in the direction of your company and your brand,” Jim said. “I wanted to allow students to think beyond bullet points and get beyond the obvious.”
Amid the flurry of creating a market strategy and plan for the business moving forward, there’s a lot of background noise from people in the other roles in the company about positioning and targeting, diversification, sustainability efforts, and segmentation.
Jim wanted to provide his students with plenty of possible futures that all seem plausible. “Different students will pick different paths for different reasons,” Jim said. “This gets to the difference between a realistic environment and a typical simulation where there's usually a kind of right answer.”
When Jim started building the story, he thought about his own experiences stepping into an organization as a Brand Manager. He wanted to replicate the immediate pressures and expectations new Brand Managers face as soon as they step into the door.
Successful Brand Managers must learn to traverse various functional roles within a company and coordinate resources to achieve the mission. The whole purpose of a Brand Manager is to bring a customer-focused intention to every strategic decision in the company. Without strong coordination through brand management, companies risk losing the voice of the customer to the individual interests of different departments.
“Accounting will typically look for ways to lower costs,” Jim began. “Manufacturing will look for ways to make the same thing more efficiently. R&D typically has a higher risk tolerance for new ideas than the rest of the organization. Sales is motivated to make more revenue. Finance focuses on return on investments,” Jim said. “While Marketing must always be focused on: Who is our customer, who should be our customer, and why? What is our value proposition to our target segments? How do we create a sustainable business path?”
What students learn from working with a dominating company: “Amazon is focused on Amazon”
In the Inbox Strategic Marketing simulation, an opportunity arises to partner with Amazon as a private label manufacturer.
“Private label manufacturing for a large company can be a double-edged sword,” Jim said. He challenged his students to consider the larger question: in the long haul, are we better off as the Gorshland Brand, or are we better off dissolving the brand for the promise of sustainable growth as a private label manufacturer?
This is a real question for many small to midsize companies today with the consolidation of retail stores and internet sales growth. There is no correct answer, but this does require more than a cursory look at the numbers. There are other real consequences to employees and jobs and the entire legacy of the company.
Partnering with Amazon “doesn’t mean you get to go sit on the beach in Tahiti with a million dollars in the bank.” Jim said. “That’s not the end of the story. As a Brand Manager, what becomes of you if you think that the company should partner with Amazon?”
The Importance of The Straw Man
One of my primary goals in this simulation creation process was to illustrate the importance of sustainable growth. The story creates a straw man--a framework for students to think about making strategic decisions. It’s often easy to be influenced by strong, authoritative figures in the workplace, so Jim tried to recreate some of those kinds of characters in the simulation.
“The trick is to separate actual facts and data from the person talking to you,” he advised. In the end, the most essential skill you can have as a marketer, Jim argues, “is figuring out what questions to ask.”
Ultimately, a Brand Manager is working in two modes, either concentration or concession. In strategy, it’s equally important to define what you want to do and what you don’t want to do.
Evaluating Key Issues and Developing Soft Skills in Up-and-Coming Marketers
From his experience as a Brand Manager and later teaching Marketing, Jim wanted to create a tool that would help in the areas he thought were a vital nexus of academic goals with real-world skills. Jim’s simulation addresses four primary areas:
- Critical Thinking
- Exploring available information sources systematically and comprehensively
- Developing and testing alternative hypotheses
- Objectively questioning data, logic, and evaluating assumptions
- Gathering Information from others
- Expressing Strategic Ideas
- Marketing Analysis
- Situation Assessment/Problem Identification
- Applying Marketing Research
- Strategic Planning Process
- Principled Decision-Making
- Using a framework that balances business unit goals with ethical concerns and company culture to make marketing decisions
Jim was mindful of the AACSB Learning Objectives for the Marketing course at William and Mary when he created soft skill areas. The simulation serves as a framework for these learning objectives that can be expanded if an instructor desires. Jim also worked with Capsim to create a Developmental Tactics Guide that illustrates ways to take an element from the simulation and make separate or additional exercises for students.
“The best educational tools evolve by continuous improvement from the input of people using the tool,” Jim said. He continues seeking input to make CapsimInbox: Strategic Marketing an even better learning tool for his students and a teaching tool for fellow marketing educators.
Break the Production Line Process Today
Now that we've shared Professor Kourmadas' story with Strategic Marketing, you can try it out for yourself! Experience a day in the life of a Brand Manager by requesting a demo.
If this article ignited some flames for your own microsimulation, start building today to build a more immersive and engaging learning experience.