Social Media Burst into Europe's B-Schools

European MBA programs are using blogs, wikis, social networking, and other Web 2.0 tools to link students and explore new business strategies

Until a few years ago, faculty and students at Europe's business schools tended to view social media as a diversion. Whether it concerned blogs, wikis, or such social networking sites as Facebook, the world of Web 2.0 didn't seem to have much to do with management education.

That attitude has started changing as a generation of students weaned on social media make their way into MBA programs. Schools, too, have realized the importance of Web 2.0—both to the companies for which students are being trained and as an adjunct to traditional pedagogy. Schools such as Spain's ESADE and IESE and France's INSEAD are now researching and teaching about the use of social media in business, as well as integrating the subject into the academic setting.

An early proponent of such instruction was Andrew Stephen, INSEAD assistant professor of marketing. Shortly after joining the INSEAD faculty in 2009, he created the first major elective course on social media at a European business school—"Advertising and Social Media Strategy," which launched in January 2010.

Stephen says he felt there was a gap in business education regarding Web 2.0 and its potential impact on marketing. Now he's teaching MBAs how social media can enrich the interaction between companies and customers. Students in his class work on projects to develop social media marketing strategies for name brands such as Coca-Cola (KO), Nokia (NOK), and Hermès (RMS:FP).

How to Generate Offline Buzz?

To be sure, Stephen concedes that using social relevance to enhance online brand marketing is still in its infancy. What's more, 80 percent of brand-related conversations still take place offline, leaving a mere 20 percent online. "Students tend to forget the most basic principle of marketing is to generate buzz—online or off," he says. "We're just at the start of this process."

Schools are also just starting to weave social media into their own processes and curricula. ESADE's executive MBA program in Madrid is a case in point. The school used to rely heavily on e-mail to keep students in touch outside the classroom. But with one-third of the students not in Madrid, e-mail alone couldn't maintain group cohesion, says Jaime Castello, associate professor of marketing management. "These students meet in person only every two weeks," Castello says. "They need to stay connected in between."

ESADE elected to try an open-source Web tool called Moodle that's aimed specifically at educational institutions. The application helps students network and develop community. "The point was to keep the group tightly knit, both inside and outside the classroom," Castello says.

The implications of such social networks are themselves becoming a subject of research within business school. Evgeny Káganer, assistant professor of information systems at IESE, is spearheading a project to explore how Web 2.0 tools such as wikis, blogs, and social networks can be used to collaborate outside traditional organizational boundaries.

Mobile Devices Integral to Learning

"There's no one set of tools we use for this," Káganer says. In an academic setting, students use all kinds of media—from microblogging to widgets to Web conferencing—to complement and extend the classroom experience. Káganer says faculty members at IESE now expect students to access curricula, assignments, and one another through mobile devices. All course materials, cases, and collaboration tools are available via the Apple iPad.

But while social media tools are unquestionably useful to augment teaching and learning in schools, using them to make profitable products and services in the real world is tougher, Káganer says. One of the most promising applications for social media is to serve as a platform for what's known as "crowdsourcing," or tapping the wisdom of the masses for everything from designing a new logo to shaping a new kind of pasta.

Káganer now assigns his students projects that require crowdsourcing because, he says, it has become part of the future of business. Thanks to the rise of social media, "we're seeing a new enterprise structure, a whole a new way of interacting with the outside," he says. "Businesses will change as a result of social media, but it's very early to say exactly how." MBA students at Europe's top business schools are going to be among those who figure that out.

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