Students become business world strategists on Robin Gustafsson’s course

”I want to open the students’ eyes to the benefits of considering various approaches,” says Associate Professor of Strategic Management.

The Advanced Strategic Management course is one of the most popular ones in the Industrial Engineering and Management Master's Degree Programme and at the same time, a very challenging course. ‘Peer review has proved a functional means of communicating the things students should focus on, even if it may sometimes involve emotions. What is particularly wonderful is that students get a huge dose of encouragement,’ says Associate Professor Robin Gustafsson who teaches the course.

Who are you, and what do you do?

I am Robin Gustafsson, Associate Professor of Strategic Management at the Department of Industrial Engineering and Management. I am a Doctor of Science and I have worked at Aalto since 2013. My research focuses on corporate and business strategy and strategizing in industry shifts, which is often affected by the technological turning points that business fields face. I study the renewal of traditional fields of business and the factors that accelerate or hinder these renewals.

My latest research concerns the shift to manufacturing cleaner biodiesel. The case company is Neste, which provides a good example of a renewal of a traditional business field. Neste is an innovative petroleum company, that has been successful in creating a market for biodiesel. Simultaneously, the company’s palm oil production has encountered remarkable challenges, but still the company manages to operate successfully.

What does good teaching entail in your opinion?

Good teaching provides students with the ability and tools to develop their own thinking and analytical skills. Students get concrete practice that prepares them for encountering companies in different kinds of situations through real-life strategy-related cases. This also involves getting used to receiving and giving feedback as well as encouraging others during corporate strategic planning.

My role as a teacher is more of a facilitative and sparring one, and I try to present as many approaches as possible to the strategic or business-related issues we deal with.

How have you developed the teaching at Aalto?

I have replaced the lecture-based teaching with the case-oriented teaching approach. Harvard University is a pioneering developer of case method teaching and its courses are primarily based on it.

I teach the Advanced Strategic Management course particularly targeted for students oriented in strategy and venturing, who are at an early stage of their Master’s degree studies. On the course, we formulate strategies for the entire operation of a company or for one of its business fields. The objective is to open the students’ eyes to the benefits of considering various approaches. The objectives also include teaching the students to utilise different viewpoints, when preparing their solution analyses, and to examine optional solutions as decision-makers.

At first, a case company is presented to the students and they are provided with the tools to conduct a company analysis. A case could be, for example, to consider what the gaming company Rovio should focus on during the next year. The students perform a large part of the assignment beforehand; they analyse the case company’s situation and prepare to present their solution proposal in the concluding discussion in study groups.

The final discussion is similar to a genuine corporate strategy meeting. The company’s viewpoint on the situation is provided by myself and if required, by a third-party expert. For example, the topic of the year before last was the merger of Konecranes and an American crane and device manufacturer, and the Chairman of Konecrane's Board of Directors as well as Department of Industrial Engineering and Management alumni Stig Gustavson participated in the discussion. Last year, we dealt with mobile payment and a digitalisation consultancy company participated. Both of these were magnificent settings for the course! The experts gain up-to-date insight on the field’s research and the students’ way of thinking. On the other hand, the students become acquainted with the companies and get new contacts; some may even get future jobs. Approximately half of the graduates are employed by strategic consultancies. Nowadays, the students are interested in start-up business, as well.

According to our vision, we are building a sustainable society driven by innovation and entrepreneurship. How is this evident in your work as a teacher?

It is a part of me; part of my values and what I want to do. Researchers focus on what is interesting and topical and they want to be on the cutting edge.

Sustainable development is close to my heart and it is very natural for the engineer education, because using “gadgets” is a tremendous opportunity to make the world a better place. Entrepreneurship education, on the other hand, is a central part of our department’s identity.

Where do you get strength and inspiration for your work?

I get strength from my family and from doing sports, for example trail running in the woods; they make life more balanced. I am inspired by the people I work with: colleagues, academic co-writers, senior professors and post-docs.

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