Saturday, March 1, 2008

SDM partnership is a success story for Ford of Mexico - SDM Pulse, Spring 2008

Six SDM students employed by Ford of Mexico pose
in MIT’s Killian Court. They are, from left, Adrian
Aguirre SDM ’06, Adrian Diaz SDM ’07,
Marcia Azpeitia SDM ’08, Antonio del
Puerto SDM ’08, Jose Antonio Almazan SDM ’07,
and Takahiro Endo SDM ’06.
By Adrian Aguirre, SDM ’06

Ford of Mexico started its association with the System Design and Management Program (SDM) two years ago with just two students. Yet already this collaborative effort to learn and apply leading-edge MIT knowledge to improve the company’s product development capabilities has begun to show its first fruits—for the sponsored students, the company, and SDM.

SDM was founded in 1996 to alleviate an industry need for leaders that could seamlessly integrate both technical and nontechnical aspects of management. As such, industry partners have been at the core of the success, growth, and future of SDM. Ford Motor Company was among SDM’s founding partners, and over the past 11 years the relationship between Ford and SDM has evolved, adapting to ever-changing industry needs.

When Ford of Mexico began looking for an advanced degree program to develop high-potential engineers, it determined that SDM was the best option for several reasons: the variety of participating industries, intense industry focus, curriculum flexibility, and SDM’s career-compatible 24-month program option.

The company was particularly interested in improving product development, but it was initially unclear how SDM could support this. With the help of SDM’s faculty and by carefully analyzing lessons learned from prior Ford interactions, the company developed a three-stage approach. Its partnership with SDM would carry through the full life cycle of the program, from candidate selection, through the work performed during SDM matriculation, to the student’s ultimate reintegration in the workplace.

The goal of improving product development was found to align particularly well with SDM’s thesis requirements. Because the thesis is the single largest independent compendium of work that an SDM student generates, it is a key opportunity to link academic knowledge to a company’s business needs.

There was, however, a major challenge. Although work of significant quality was being conducted within thesis projects, the overall impact to companies sponsoring those theses was difficult to measure.

Ford of Mexico wanted a critical mass of knowledge that could improve operations. Therefore, it decided to sponsor a series of integrated theses directly linked to this need. Each would address one aspect of the problem and then be added to the others to provide a complete picture of the larger, more complex issue.

To achieve this, the first two theses focused on establishing a framework—one as an umbrella thesis that defined the problem’s architecture and a second to establish the means to track the project’s progress. The umbrella thesis would provide guidelines for thesis topics in the near to mid term and guiding principles to serve as integration elements. In this way a central concept and a thread to guide it were created for Ford of  Mexico’s SDM work. MIT faculty were key to the plan’s success, providing an outside perspective on the organization’s problems and needs. In addition, the experience and academic excellence of MIT’s faculty ensured students would have the management trust required for the work at SDM to become a driver for organizational change.

Keeping thesis work aligned with the company’s business objectives is critical. Therefore, each student is assigned a senior-level company mentor, in addition to the MIT thesis advisor, to help with any business issues that arise. The mentor also provides the student with direction and coaching within the company.

Assigning mentors who have seniority gives students rich lessons in management and the company context for the thesis. This strategy also validates the SDM work to the rest of the organization and provides for quick implementation of changes. In addition, all mentors are linked to a project champion, ensuring that SDM work is strategically directed to help solve the larger problem at hand. To date, faculty views of thesis requirements and those of company thesis mentors have been in complete alignment.

Managing an ambitious, interactive program such as this is never easy, but the benefits to the company can be enormous. Ford of Mexico has remained on track with its plan and now has the umbrella thesis and the first in-depth thesis in hand. The second and third theses are due to be completed this year. In addition, two new Ford of Mexico students joined SDM in 2008 and will continue to further the program’s goals by contributing to an increased understanding of the challenges faced by Ford of Mexico.

A lesson in aligning goals
Ford of Mexico’s interaction with the SDM program is a model for others to follow, says John M. Grace, SDM’s industry codirector.

By partnering with SDM from the beginning, Ford of Mexico ensures that appropriate candidates are enrolled, that SDM coursework and thesis research further company goals, and that their SDM graduates return to work ready and able to propel the company forward.

There are three key steps:
Selecting candidates. SDM faculty and Ford management work together to jointly evaluate candidates, then Ford chooses several to complete the SDM admission process. SDM staff evaluate each candidate’s qualifications and share their unbiased assessment with Ford. Ford makes the final selection from among the candidates who meet SDM’s and MIT’s admissions requirements.

Aligning academic and business goals.
SDM course-work is integrated with meaningful work experiences to provide students with opportunities to apply their new knowledge immediately. Employment at Ford during SDM matriculation provides students with access to new technical areas selected for their growth potential and alignment with business objectives. Thesis work is focused on an identified company need, directed by an MIT faculty member, and monitored by a company mentor. The mentor links the student and faculty member with the business, ensuring visibility for the thesis work within the company and aiding with pertinent technical and business information.

Creating a reintegration strategy.
Reintegrating students into the workplace after graduation from other degree programs has been difficult for several companies. To learn from their experience, Ford of Mexico planned a reintegration strategy for its SDM students from the onset. This strategy centers on creating opportunities for students to develop and providing them with significant work challenges toward the end of their studies at MIT.

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