Collaboration as an Alternative to Simulation

A new collaborative project connects students with peers across the globe to translate the difficulties of international business to the classroom.

A few years ago, an international business professor at the University of North Carolina–Greensborough had a thought: Wouldn’t his students learn more about the international business community if they actually interacted with students from somewhere else? After all, international business requires working across cultural divides and dealing with different time zones and language barriers—things that are notoriously difficult to translate into a classroom environment.

That thought soon blossomed into the X-Culture International Business and Collaboration Project, which connects 80 universities in more than 40 countries across six continents each semester. This spring, one of those was Rollins College—specifically, Michèle Boulanger’s International Business 300 course. In part, Boulanger opted to use X-Culture in one, though not all, of her international business courses because she, Ilan Alon, and Vas Taras, the program’s founder, are using it for research on cross-cultural ability assessment. But she also wanted to see how it stacked up against the Introduction to Business and Strategy simulation game she normally uses.

“I’ve been quite happy,” Boulanger says of X-Culture. “It’s a different way to bring reality to the classroom. Getting the students into a real international team, it’s really a key learning experience. We think it’s easy, but until you do it you don’t know what it is.”

The program, in essence, works like this: Each student in her class was joined with a team of four or five students from all over the world. These students then spend the semester jointly researching and writing a business plan proposing that an established company create a new product and sell it in a new market.

In Boulanger’s class, one student’s group proposed that Apple create an “iBoard,” a wall-sized tablet marketed to schools. Another’s wrote that Campbell Soup should create a soup aimed at Mexican children. Yet another’s proposed a series of gyms targeted toward specific types of athletes in Venezuela. And then there was Jessica Wilson’s group.

“My first encounter with my team, there was not much communication,” says Wilson. “I was very nervous.”

The team was comprised of women from Italy, Pakistan, Poland, and Tennessee. They created a Facebook page and communicated through it. And eventually, through some back and forth and a couple arguments, they forged a plan.

They knew they wanted to focus on what are known as BRIC countries—Brazil, Russia, India and China—and early on narrowed their focus to either beauty products or chocolate. That was weaned down to chocolate and India; for a company, they settled on Lindt Chocolate, the truffle-maker. Primarily, Wilson says, they did so because Lindt didn’t have much of a presence in India, as opposed to, say, Hershey, and India is emerging in terms of its chocolate consumption.

“We knew we didn’t want to change the product too much,” she says. But they did need to tailor it to the market. So they proposed filling dark chocolate with either a red chili or brandy flavor, and coating the outside with gold flakes to demarcate it as a luxury item. The wrapper, too, would be altered to a mix of yellow, green, and red, the colors of the Indian flag. The final 32-page report recommended that Lindt enter the chocolate market by way of indirect exports, which would allow the company to gain a presence without requiring a good deal of investment.

“School seems to be separated from the real world,” Wilson says. “This kind of integrated all that. It didn’t feel like we were in a classroom anymore.”