01 Dec 2017

Enhancing Students’ Cultural Intelligence


Students partnered with Colgate-Palmolive in Mexico City

Brian Franklin (MBA 2018) admits the prospect of partnering with Colgate-Palmolive to identify a strategy for marketing deodorant to teens in Mexico didn’t sound as glamorous as some of his classmates’ FIELD Global Immersion (FGI) projects. But in retrospect, he says, conducting field research in Mexico and developing and presenting innovative product ideas to senior executives at Colgate’s Consumer Innovation Center “was a learning experience I wouldn’t have traded for any of the others.”

The 52 students in his cohort spent eight days in May working on challenges proposed by nine partner organizations in Mexico City. The trip was the culmination of the yearlong FIELD (Field Immersion Experiences for Leadership Development) course. The FGI enables students to apply learning from throughout their first year to on-site, customer-related projects with companies around the world.

Before their trip, Franklin’s six-person team tested their research methodology in interviews with Boston-area teens and parents. Carrying out the same exercise at an after-school youth center in Mexico City revealed significant cultural differences. “Colgate wanted to better understand teens’ values and opinions,” says Franklin. “One question we asked involved heroes. Almost all said their parents were their heroes because they worked so hard. That’s not the typical answer you’d get from an American teen. It left a lasting impression.”

“Developing cultural intelligence is a central goal of FIELD,” notes Senior Fellow Thomas DeLong, the faculty leader for the Mexico City cohort. “We create narratives in our heads about places we’ve never visited. The FGI challenges those assumptions almost as soon as you land in-country.”

After living and working abroad and in the United States, Mette Andersen (MBA 2018) appreciated experiencing a new culture in a growing Latin American economy. Her team’s assignment—observing ticket-buying transactions and surveying consumers in Aeroméxico travel stores to help the airline enhance customer satisfaction—provided insight on Mexico’s travel industry and, equally important, a new perspective on teamwork.

“There were no designated leaders in the teams we were assigned to in Boston,” says Andersen. “The power dynamic was challenging. How do you determine who is better at brainstorming, logistics, or presenting recommendations under pressure in an unfamiliar country working with consumers and clients who don’t speak your language?”

This was Mexico’s first year on the list of 16 FGI sites, and DeLong reports positive feedback from the global partners, whose involvement was facilitated by HBS’s Mexico City research office. “Many of the companies were surprised by how much they learned about innovation from seeing our students develop insight through design thinking,” he says. “It’s an exciting business climate. HBS alumni are deeply invested in building Mexico’s economy, and many were instrumental in helping to coordinate this immersion.”


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