By Philip Sheridan, MBA student
Due to my interest in strategic planning and innovation management, I participated in the 2015 Munich & Athens study abroad program with the intent to study strategies for global innovation, and how the political, legal and ethical climate can impact a country’s corporate and economic development. Despite the improving economic climate for a number of states within the European Union (EU), the tensions created by the current Greek crisis provided a unique (possibly historical) opportunity to learn first-hand how each country’s respective business and economic environment is impacting the health of the EU.
The EU consists of 27 member states (countries), of which Germany is considered Europe’s economic engine, with a longstanding record of high employment and productivity. Kicking off our studies, two lecturers (Dr. Richard Hofmaier, University of Applied Sciences Munich; Alexander Lang, Tu Munchen) described how the main driving forces (~99%) behind Germany’s economy are small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs; up to 500 employees), referred to as the ‘German Mittlestand’ or ‘hidden champions’. Roughly 95% of Mittlestand firms are family-owned businesses, of which >54% have launched an innovation onto the market, contributing almost 52% of Germany’s economic output within the EU (~27% of EU GDP). Dr. Hofmaier and Mr. Lang eluted to how most successful German firms (large or small) try to capture the spirit of these ’hidden champions’ to drive innovation, and integrate knowledge of consumer-demands into their innovation management and product development practices and processes.
The innovation practices discussed by Hofmaier and Lang provided a great international context for our course studies in global innovation management, particularly as it relates to ideation, opportunity identification, option development, synthesis and analysis. Together with Dr. Zimmermann, we discussed these topics and relevant case studies used by global organizations trying to establish and sustain innovative cultures. These class discussions and experiential exercises provided great exposure to practices and contextual tools that I can leverage in my strategic planning and business development activities.
Our time in Germany culminated with site visits to the BMW Manufacturing World Headquarters, as well as the Strascheg Center for Entrepreneurship (within the University of Applied Sciences). At BMW, we observed how a large enterprise marries customer-focused development with innovative production methods to maintain their competitive edge and increase manufacturing efficiency.
At the Strascheg Center, we learned how the German government invests resources to establish entrepreneurship programs and seed university business incubators. We had the unique experience to hear from two start-up cofounders as to the resources provided by the center to help them develop and deliver their innovative products to the market.
Following our acclimation to Athens through a program sponsored ‘Athens Sensations Tour’, we started our studies in Greece with an orientation by Dean Nickolaos Travlos from the Athens Laboratory of Business Administration (ALBA). Dean Travlos framed out key financial events that led to Greece’s current economic crisis, which today is characterized by excessive debt (debt to GDP >170%), an over-bearing public sector (>50% public companies), non-competitive government policies (low government efficiency, 56/59), and a significant ‘black economy’ (>30%). As a result, the Greek government faces overwhelming pension obligations, extremely high unemployment (>25%; >50% for youths), a deflated private business sector (low business efficiency index, 53/59), and significant lost tax revenues due to the black economy.
Of particular interest was a presentation by Prof. Babis Mainemelis (ALBA) who emphasized how Greek businesses could leverage their worldly traditions and heritage to spur innovation and differentiate its products on a global business stage. We visited Apivita, a family-owned company that specializes in using natural organic oils, plant extracts and beehive products to formulate holistic cosmetics. We toured their production facility and botanical gardens, including a hands-on experience as to the beekeeping practices used to maintain their hives for generation and collection of natural product ingredients. We also toured the Papagiannakos Winery and enjoyed a history lecture on wine in Greece by food consultant and sommelier Chrissa Giatra. It was interesting to hear how these two family businesses were leveraging their unique success in Greece to expand within the European market.
It will be interesting to follow future economic developments within the EU. Will there be a Grexit (Greek exit from the EU)? Could this lead to a contagion where other countries (Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Italy) also exit rather than continue to institute painful austerity measures (such as labor and market reforms). And what global impact could such developments have on international markets and economies?
While we wait to see what the future holds for Greece and the EU, I can say that the immersive nature of the Munich & Athens program provided direct exposure to these contrasting business environments, and cultures as a whole. The team–based course content and exercises fostered collaboration between individuals from various university programs, and together with lectures by international faculty and company site visits, delivered a unique and exceptional professional learning opportunity every student should have the good fortune to experience. Lastly, it was extremely stimulating to learn about these historical cities and their overall place in the world, from an economic as well as cultural perspective. Most important, it was great fun to meet new people, expand my professional network, and establish new friendships.
Read these other blog posts detailing student experiences in Munich & Athens:
Check back soon for more student experiences abroad!
For more information on Ahlers Center opportunities, visit our study abroad webpage.