Week 4 – Half way gone

Last week we had some eye opening experiences with visits to the township.  First off was a community forum meeting for the OVC  that the girls from the Business Place tagged along to.  One of Ikamva’s greatest strengths is that they have built up a tremendous community presence over the last 40+ years.  This community is often passionate and active and one of their voices is this OVC forum.  I’ll see if I can set the scene for you.

Ikamva’s health center building in Kayletsha is one of the newest buildings with big spaces and clean tile floors.  When we arrived there were probably 150 Mama’s and a few Tata’s (grandpas) seated and waiting.  At the front of the room was a long table where several people that looked like dignitaries were sitting (they all seemed to be wearing some sort of robes).   So far so good; like any other group meeting I’ve been to but that quickly changed.  A group of older women dressed in white blouses, much like cafeteria workers, and 1 younger women, very tall and all in black, started streaming out of the kitchen area.  These women are all singing and very quickly everyone in the place, including myself, is up and dancing.  If you’re familiar with Bollywood style movies then you’ll be able to picture the rest of the meeting.  In between speeches we can’t understand because they are in Xhosa, there are dance numbers where the majority of the people stand and dance.  One of the women kept the beat with this padded thumper (it looks like a bible with a strap and I keep thinking “bible thumper”).  Eventually we were introduced as visitors and were called up to dance while everyone sang hello to us.  It was fantastic!  I definitely want to try this meeting style when I get back to the states.

While the meeting was a lot of fun what Holly & I were really able to glean from it was just how strong that community really is, how aged it is, and how much more we need to think about ways to leverage the community as a multiplier effect for Ikamva’s efforts.

As another aside, we went to eat at Mzoli’s in Gugulethu after the meeting.  This place has become quite famous and celebrities from the states often stop by when they are here.  Basically the place is really just a butcher shop but instead of taking the meat home they have these huge bbq grills in the back (they call them braai here) where two guys were cooking up a ton of meat.  It made me tear up a little to see so much glorious food on the bbq and reminded me of the “meat fests” my brothers and I have had in the past.  Point here is it’s important to keep that work-life balance strong.

If our first experience was uplifting and enjoyable our second experience brought us right back down.  On Thursday we scheduled to go out into the townships with some of the community based workers while they did home visits.  The goal was to get a real sense of what was happening with these homes and what some of the impact measurements could be.  I got to chauffeur Holly, Msuthuikazi, and a social work student from UCT as we went to visit the homes.  At the first stop everything seemed in order from the outside.  We’ve had a lot of rain so the front door was blocked by a board covered in a tarp, presumably to prevent water from getting in.  As we went round to the back we were greeting by a friendly elderly man, presumable a Tata, and then entered the home.  Right away you could sense that this was not somewhere you wanted to spend much time.  Entering into the kitchen there were stacks of dirty dishes and huge piles of laundry to be done.  The entire home was very dark and dimly lit with a heady aroma of urine and mildew hanging in the air.  Holly, who has been a social worker in the states, told me later she almost vomited because this was the worst smell she’d ever experienced.   Also, the caregiver was absent, having taken a child to Red Cross, and left a woman who seemed to be either drunk or stoned to care for the kids. We were led into the living room of this 2 bedroom house that has 7 children in it: 3 of them have disabilities,1 has aids, 1 was almost raped two weeks prior (possibly by the old man we’d seen when we entered), and 1 little boy was without pants.  In the living room the small tv was on to some trashy show and there was a heater on the floor that could easily start a fire or burn a child.  Obviously this home does not represent the kind of caring, nurturing, and supportive environment that Ikamva wants to empower and support.  As we left the home, a healthy discussion began about what was happening in that household, what the disconnect was, and possible resolutions.  Unfortunately concerned citizens can’t simply call social workers to report problems, another social worker must do it.  This is part of a cycle of protectionism in South Africa where people can only do business if they belong to the same group.  In order to resolve the issue we’d have to work through the 2 social workers Ikamva has on staff.  Everyone was disappointed with the outcome but acknowledged that we had more work to do and had to get on with it.

Moving on from that home we visited 3 others which were in various states of success.  The second home we visited was headed by an unmotivated 21 year old who was still in bed at 11 a.m. but didn’t have a job.  Apparently she wouldn’t look for one because she hadn’t completed school making it very difficult to find work.  Ikamva has been supporting this house for almost 2 years with food and school fees but nobody has ever really forced any accountability on this woman.  Once again we saw that charity doesn’t work and that you have to get some buy-in from everyone if you want to make any changes.  Everyone in our group was on the same page about how she was simply being lazy and needed to be told that if she expected to get aid she had to do her part, too.  On the plus side, there were no signs of abuse and the house was clean if not warm.

House 3 was a model home of sorts.  It’s run by an 65 year old Mama who places a strong emphasis on education which has trickled down to the 3 kids she looks after.  I think the rubber switch(!) she showed us helps her instill a sense of discipline into the household.  Right away you could tell a difference with this home.  There was more space outside of the house for playing.  As you entered the home the curtains were all open and the place was both warm and full of light.  When we came in there was a social gathering of older women leaving and they all shook our hands warmly.  One of the orphan girls, who just finished her grade 11 exams, was doing a little clean-up and then began cooking something while we talked to the Mama (actually she only spoke Xhosa so everything was translated).  Everyone appeared to be genuinely happy and healthy.   Clearly Ikamva was succeeding here with the support and assistance they were delivering this woman, enabling her to create a positive environment for the children she was fostering.  Luckily the kids are all older (one girl is 11, 2 are 17) so this Mama is almost done.  Holly & I thought that a woman like this could really be used as an evangelist of sorts to go out and share best practices with other Mama’s and should be held up as a model of success.

House 4 was eye opening in a few ways.  First this lady has 13 (!) kids in her care (the legal limit is 6) in a 2 bedroom home she built on family land with her own money.  After asking how she got involved in fostering children she told us she had a son but that she had worked while he was growing up, leaving him with his grandmother.  Since he had grown and become successful she felt like she wanted a second chance to take care of children and provide them with a safe environment.  Almost all of the kids are under 5 which makes it even more amazing that she’s able to care for them.  Here we found an innovation that could be very valuable to others in the form of a live-in helper.  Because the cost of labor is so low, this woman was able to hire a full-time helper for not much more than room and board.  This situation enables her to nap when she’s tired, not have to worry about cooking AND watching the children, and provides her with a built-in sitter for times when she has to take other children to the clinic.  Again, Holly & I felt that this was really something that Ikamva should encourage and potentially support through grants.  However, we both felt that Ikamva should not be supporting law-breaking (with the number of kids) and might be able to use their community connections to find other well-run orphan/foster homes to place the excess children in.  There’s another component here in liaising with the government about the social workers and police who drop children at homes that are already at the legal limit.  Sadly, the government agency responsible for the orphans and vulnerable children has a 59% vacancy rate for positions because they aren’t enough qualified social workers nor is there sufficient budget to hire more.  It’s truly a crisis but definitely a place for a collaboration between government and NGO’s to figure out creative ways to spread the burden.  One thing that stood out to me was how out of place some of the appliances she had were in this small, spartan home.  There was a large, LED display Samsung refrigerator, a Samsung microwave, and an LG digital clothes washer.  I thought it was curious that this woman couldn’t afford to fix her leaking roof but had things that many people in the states would find it hard to afford.  I asked later if Ikamva received donations that they later disbursed to homes.  I was told they did but didn’t have a good record for this so the mystery will go unresolved.

Friday we really just took time to sit and digest what we’d seen and to work on some administrative tasks.  Together we identified a framework for describing the current model and a newer, better model based on segmenting the households.  We felt we’d lucked into seeing a broad array of homes that probably covered 90% of Ikamva’s world and that in each situation Ikamva should offer different services/support.  In order to receive these services, Ikamva needs to enforce specific requirements of recipients as well as define their own success metrics to help determine if they are actually accomplishing anything.

Next week (now this week as my post is late) is a short one as we’re going on safari but after the whirlwind of work and meetings we had yesterday I have no doubt I will have some stories to tell.

5 weeks left!

Adventures in Health Insurance

Intern 6 and Intern 7 ~ Innovating

Hello Consulting Club!

This is Aimee reporting from Portland, Oregon. This summer I am doing an Internship at the Regence Group – which is a subsidiary of Blue Cross / Blue Shield in Idaho, Washington, Oregon, & Utah. Regence is a non-profit company that employs about 6000 people, has about 2.5 million members (customers), and generates approximately $10 Billion in annual revenue. Within Regence there are two main product divisions: Health Insurance Services and Direct Health Solutions (DHS).

The Health Insurance Services division is the traditional Medical Insurance group, which obviously has slim margins that will continue to get slimmer and slimmer as health care reforms take effect over the next three years. DHS is a collection of miscellaneous health companies that fall under the Regence umbrella and tends to have better margins. Examples of DHS companies would be Regence Life and Health (RLH) a company that offers supplementary insurance products such as Dental, Vision, and Life Insurance or Regence Rx – a pharmacy benefit management company.

My job this summer is to strategize with the Innovation Group. The Innovation Group reports directly to the Chief Innovation Office (formerly the Chief Marketing Officer) who reports directly to the CEO. Our department is responsible for driving innovation within the company. This means that we either “boost” existing companies / divisions within DHS or Health Insurance Services by creating value-adding programs that increase sales, profits, and productivity. Or we develop entirely new companies that fall under the DHS umbrella and solve real problems within the health care industry. Problems the Innovation Force attempts to address range from increasing access to health care for the uninsured to solving the health demands of an aging demographic (aka baby boomers). Ideas for these companies can come from within or outside Regence.

Our job is to filter through each idea, pick the best, develop them into viable business models & plans, execution roadmaps, and create a basic financial analysis. We then present the ideas to the Regence funding group (including the CFO) who decides whether the new company or divisional “boost” will receive funds and moves to the next stages of pro-typing and implementation.

The overarching objective of this group is to manage the changing landscape of the health care industry. We are trying to CREATIVELY and PROFITABLY solve some of the problems that have plagued the industry for decades. We are currently brainstorming about ideas in alternative health care, fertility, medical tourism, veteran heath care, home health care, and serving the uninsured.

So far I have spent most of my time working on a new e-strategy for RLH, as well as reviewing early stage ideas. I definitely feel that the skills I picked up in classes such as Strategy, Problem Solving, and Marketing are tremendously helpful in this position. I also feel that my experience writing business plans, the McCloskey competition, and all of the case competitions from this past year has been very useful this summer as well.

OK that’s all for now kittens! I am working on putting together an Entrepreneur Do It Yourself (DIY) tool kit this week. That should be fun!

This department is (understandably) a little bit secretive – so I’ll try to share what I can…..

Week 3 – Surprises

This was a shortened week because of a the Youth Day holiday which commemorates the Soweto uprising in 1976 but it certainly didn’t seem any less dense in terms of what we accomplished or challenges we faced.

Monday morning we gave our weekly summary report.  I assume this is a pretty standard consulting project feature and something that I’ve seen work well in the past with Agile Programming on projects which may change directions quickly.  That has certainly been this case this week and we’ve gone from come up with performance metrics to determining whether Ikamva should even be in the “business” of helping OVC families the way they are.  I’m getting a little ahead of myself in the timeline so let’s get back on topic.

Holly & I presented our current situation to the executive team at Ikamva and got very positive feedback about how on track they thought we were as well as some interesting tidbits from Helen regarding resources Ikamva had that we hadn’t thought about: the community of individuals Ikamva has helped over the years.  I have a feeling that will be very important in our final recommendations.  Holly did basically all of the talking during this meeting which makes sense as her background in social work gives her the strongest voice and most credentials.  However, when she was done talking everyone turned to me and asked if I had anything to contribute.  My input was present in all of our findings and preliminary recommendations yet because Holly had done all the talking it must have appeared that I wasn’t involved.  Holly & I talked afterwards and determined that we would better distribute the presentation work so that we were each getting our voice time.  Even something so trivial as that can have a big impact on how your contributions are viewed but I felt like the way we resolved it was very positive and Holly even made sure to tell them how much input I’d had.  I guess the point here is to make sure and speak up when you’re not being heard.

One of the outcomes of the status meeting was that we needed to meet with the head of the OVC (Orphans & Vulnerable Children) department to really get a feel for who they serve and how as we couldn’t find any document that articulated this.  We held the meeting but didn’t quite get the outcome we wanted.  Unfortunately we couldn’t really come to a solid conclusion on who exactly it was that Ikamva is providing services to.  There were some guidelines but as we dug in we found there were always exceptions.  This kind of reminded me of the scene in Office Space where they are asking the guy what he does and he says he takes the requirements from the customer but as they keep asking questions it turns out he doesn’t do anything. Alas, I digress once again, so back to it.

During meetings I like to watch people’s faces and body language when I’m not talking and I could tell Helen was not too happy about what we were saying with regards to metrics for OVC.  She rightly pointed out that we had not been into these homes and that we didn’t even know what it meant to be successful for the people living in desperate conditions.  She felt that once we had the opportunity to talk to one of these “mommas” that we would see what their challenges truly are and that we’d change our insistence that not having rigid boundaries around who you serve is a good way to not help anyone.  Action item for next week: Meet with the mommas!

Helen’s insight led us down a different path than we’d intended.  At Notre Dame you’re taught through both the Problem Solving and Strategy classes to look at problems from various angles and to consider how to remove constraints that might be blocking progress.  Thinking about whom the OVC were serving led us to wonder whether Ikamva even had any core competency in that arena.  So we went back to the drawing board and looked at what their core competencies were in the other areas and how the OVC effort fit into the organization as a whole.  Turns out OVC social work doesn’t really fit and they are offering the service as a way to fill a gap the government has created.  Ikamva has traditionally been built around helping communities by offering support services.  Things like daycare for children (called a cresh here), after school programs for kids in school and community forums so people can have their voice heard.  They don’t seem to have any real competency (or legal basis) for doing what amounts to social work in assessing household needs and coming up with action plans.  Going through this exercise gave us a new hypothesis: Ikamva should not be doing OVC work unless they can hire qualified social workers to do the job and/or contract with the government, as a few other NGO’s have, so that they are partnered with them. Also, we get the feeling that the OVC at least views the government in a negative way because of the government’s failures and the fact that Ikamva came of age during Apartheid so they have a history of fighting the government.  Once again, we’re drawing on our Mendoza education to try and see how this ‘threat’ can also be perceived as an ‘opportunity’, possibly with this partnership model.

Next week we have a new set of exciting challenges (or at least the ones we know about):

  • Dig in and see if Ikamava really has the skills needed to do the OVC social work they are currently undertaking by meeting with other NGO’s and the government
  • Acknowledging they can’t simply stop providing services, what sort of action plan can help shift them out of that role if needed
  • Assuming we find out they are competent or that they are simply unwilling to stop the OVC social work, what metrics are most relevant and how can we properly capture, measure, and normalize them to help
  • Lastly, how does their broken/bleeding IMS system fit into all of this?

Only 6 weeks left!

The Right Connections are Key – WEEK 4

This week was quite eventful. First, and foremost, IBM was celebrating its centennial anniversary. I’m not sure what any of the other offices had going but on our site in Raleigh, IBM organized a massive lunch cook-out. I never saw that many cars on IBM’s parking lots as most employees usually work from home. At 10:50am on Thursday our work was interrupted by quite a scary announcement coming out from the emergency announcement system. “Attention Please, Attention Please. All IBM personnel…!!!”  It really reminded me of that tornado warning we all heard at school while sitting in Prof. Halloran’s class one storming morning last fall. In fact it was an invitation for a cook-out. Because my team had to finish up our presentation we only decided to act on the invitation an hour later. Well… the line to the cafeteria stretched through the long IBM hallways, and it would have taken us an hour to get our food (and people kept joining the line). Realizing we would have to waste that much time, we just went out to one of the local delicious joints. That being said however, upon return we stopped by to get a piece of IBM’s birthday cake.

On Wednesday I met a couple of ND MBA alums for lunch, Jeremy and Lindsay, and they were great and welcoming. Both of them work on the same team in the Marketing Department. They are quite recent graduates, and Jeremy also worked on Extreme Blue. Again, there is nothing like the Notre Dame network: always happy to connect and help out. I appreciate it even more when I talk to MBAs from other schools.

On work ….

Reading reports and whitepapers can be extremely helpful. They give you a general overview of an issue or a product, and introduce you to the right terminology. However, what I discovered this week is that nothing can be more useful than talking to various people and gathering numerous opinions on that same product that I read about in whitepapers.

But how does one find the right people to talk to in such a gigantic organization as IBM? I learned a few lessons these past few weeks.

Lesson # 1. We are not alone

Of course I have mentors who are there to help connect me with some people, and that is already a big step – especially when I know what type of contacts I’m looking for. It is not always the case, though. The best insights, at least for me, are often found when I look outside of the obvious areas. What is very characteristic to IBM is that there are could be multiple initiatives/projects in similar areas going on at the same time in different groups, brands, countries, or right next door. What is even more interesting is that none of them might know of each other’s work. As one of IBM’s Vice Presidents explained to me, this approach fosters innovation and breakthroughs and allows the company to choose the best ideas. It doesn’t mean that these groups can’t collaborate, but it is up to them to find each other which might also take some time.

Lesson #2. Talk to as many people as possible

As I mentioned in my earlier posts, we constantly work on our 4 minute project pitch. I now understand the importance of such early preparation. It gives us chance to talk over, and over again, the idea and the purpose of our project to the point when we only need a few words to explain it to someone unfamiliar with our work. So anytime I meet a new person at IBM and give them my elevator pitch, there is quite a high chance she or he might know someone who could be helpful to talk to. So it creates a nice network of contacts. Not all meetings with gained contacts turn out fruitful and some might bear little relevance to my project, but at least they produce additional contacts. And so it continues.

Lesson #3. Look around your own office (eavesdropping is not always a bad thing) J

Finally, never underestimate resources that are right in front of you. It worked out this year that all 3 Extreme Blue projects in our RTP (Research Triangle Park) lab sort of target the same customer – a system or storage administrator. And this week, as all of the projects evolve and start taking shape, we all realized that our projects perfectly complement each other. On Friday I had such a productive conversation, thanks to my eavesdropping ability, with one of the mentors from another team. He gave me some really good insights: exactly the information I was trying to get during the whole week.


Posted in IBM

E&Y Week One

Hello All,

My name is Dan Diamond and I am working this summer in consulting for Ernst & Young. I am a part of the Performance Improvement group which focuses on financial transformations of fortune 500 companies. We are called in to improve corporate finance processes and you guessed it, improve the company’s performance. Throughout this past week, I have gone through training to acclimate myself to E&Y’s practices as well as meet the other members of my project team. On Monday I will be out at the client site, a leading consumer products manufacturer, so I am excited to see what our role will be. Although there is a lot of travel involved and often long hours, this summer will provide me with great insights into the world of consulting. Hopefully I will be able to pass some on to all of you!

Working in my pajamas.

Despite the title’s portrayal of life as  a summer intern as comfortable and laid back, working for Sales Benchmark Index for the last two weeks has been anything but.

SBI is a growing sales consulting firm that allows employees to work virtually from home (there is no office) on consulting projects both with external clients and, in my case, internal clients.  Two weeks ago I, along with Paul Mooradian (Intern Magnus), 2 graduated ND MBAs (Mike Legrand and Aaron Lubeck) and 6 other new hires were in Atlanta partaking in a week of on-boarding where we learned about the Sales Force Assessment Framework from which all analysis and effort regarding Sales Force Effectiveness (SFE) begins and ends, the Delivery Methodology which provides the process by which all SBI consulting projects are solved, and how to be a world class consultant.

Paul and I are getting our hands dirty in different ways.  Already, Paul has set himself up as a guru in Territory Design, flying, perhaps as we speak, to meet with C-Suite executives at a Fortune 10 corporation (wouldn’t you like to know which one.)

I’m in my pajamas.  My time has primarily been spent on internal projects thus far.  Working for a growing company, there are many opportunities to take what a young, savvy MBA (Paul) might know about the world and change the way the company looks at problems going forward.  Last week I met with our CEO in a hotel lobby in Boston during an hour he had free between appointments (not in my pajamas), to discuss what he considers to be an essential piece of growing the business, Search Engine Optimization (SEO).  I’ve been tasked with researching how link building (getting more sites to link to yours) can improve our SEO, what strategy we should implement to improve the number of links to our site and what tactics we should undertake to ensure that that strategy is successful.

I’m excited at the opportunity to be able to measure the impact I have on a growing firm and the interaction and guidance I will be directly receiving from the CEO.  Both Paul and I, in one week of post-training work, have had opportunities to meet with C-level professionals.  This is a rare opportunity and one that will give us great experience in interviews and post-MBA work.

Creating a roadmap and juggling my time – WEEK 3

Any consulting task starts with research. You try to get as much information as possible on the subject and on project problems. Fortunately, IBM has a culture of information sharing. In its internal databases, one can practically find anything that IBM has been working on. I got so excited when I learned about it: I kept reading through, discovering new pieces, thinking of new angles for my problem, and continued further drilling. Indeed, this process can take weeks and essentially one can virtually get lost in this vast collection of data. Last week I felt the first symptoms of what is called the information creep.

Information creep happens when one starts spending a disproportional amount of time on research and many times you forget where you are going and what you are searching for. Once I realized what was happening to me I took a step back to assess the situation. I needed a more detailed roadmap. I’m a visual person, so I started graphing diagrams and connecting the dots. I also scheduled a meeting with my business mentors and project sponsors, David and Kevin, to discuss the goals and their expectations in more detail. My business problem is very open-ended and strategic in nature. My team is developing a new product (I can’t really go into details) and I have to assess how it fits into the overall IBM strategy, how much investment makes sense, its potential impact to the company’s bottom line, and design a go-to market strategy.

One of the best parts about the Extreme Blue Program is that you can get access to practically anyone you want at IBM, even a VP. The challenging thing is to find a time slot in their calendars. People at IBM love holding meetings, thus the ability to manage your time and respect other people’s is an absolute necessity.  I usually have only 30 minutes to interview a person, and of course I prepare questions in advance. However, it is so easy to drift away from your agenda. As additional follow-up questions arise, I often suddenly find myself at the end of the meeting with most of the questions on my notepad untouched. I definitely I have to get much better at steering my meetings.

The pitch

This week we had to deliver our first project pitch which was recorded and then scrutinized by our Extreme Blue coordinators. So a few words about the pitch: We only get 4 minutes to talk about our project and it has to address the problem we are solving, the solution, and the value we deliver. There is simply not enough time to tell how awesome our solution is. But think of a 4 minute commercial: it seems forever. It was a bit weird to talk about our product this week, since we are still at the stage of shaping it. In other words, we were presenting our hypothesis of what we think our product will be. I prefer hard facts, though, which are obviously still missing. Every week we have an IBM executive guest visiting our Xtreme lab. These encounters give us a chance to network and also to learn more about the various roles at IBM. Not only do we talk to executives but we also have to make our project pitch. Thus, throughout the next 9 weeks, we are going to polish the presentation, and during the final week we will be traveling to Armonk, NY for the IBM Expo where we will present in front of bunch of execs and hopefully Sam Palmisano.

Meanwhile, I’m getting much better at foosball as we play it during the breaks. I never would have thought I would get interested in something like that, but it is getting very competitive and it seem like a tournament will follow pretty soon.


Posted in IBM

Week 2: Interviews & Observations

Getting an MBA is to a large degree about building your toolkit, the skills you will put to use as you help push business forward.  In this past year at Notre Dame I feel like I’ve added a lot of valuable items into my tool belt.  Coming from a Computer Science background, I lacked a lot of the basics such as Accounting and Statistics.  Our first mod gave us a solid grounding in these disciplines as well as Leadership/Organizational Behavior and Ethics.  Other key courses for me have included Marketing, Strategy, Finance, Persuasion and, of course, Problem Solving.  Problem Solving, taught in mod 4 by Professor Viva Bartkus who was the youngest partner in McKinsey history, forms something of a capstone for your first year at Mendoza and it’s this class that I’m drawing most heavily on at this stage in my internship.  I also expect the Leadership/Organizational Behavior and Persuasion bits to come into play since getting NGO’s to look at the world through a business lens is a must.

Our first week has mostly been filled with interviews, discussion, and observation.  For the first couple of days our communications contact determined who we would meet with and a rough schedule for us but now we’ve been set loose.  We’ve met with most of the middle layer of managers and a few of the top tier folks.  Luckily, Holly & I have been able to spend a lot of time in the townships, on the ground so-to-speak, observing how people use the services Ikamva offers and how their facilities run.  This is one of the reasons I chose this project over the others available here…this ability to get a lot closer to the problems that South Africa is facing.  Townships seem to be divided into areas that look like 1950’s era homes in America (small, close together) and places that look like refugee camps, built of spare sheet metal and plywood.  Apparently the government built the “homes” and when migration within the country was controlled, there wasn’t the problem with the shanty towns.  However, after removing the controls in the late 1980’s, people flooded into the city seeking a “better life” with more opportunity than the largely agrarian lifestyle in the countryside.  Whether living in crime-ridden, under-served shacks is a “better” life or not is a question I have been struggling with.  This is just one of the many contradictions readily apparent in South Africa.

At this point I think Holly and I have a good feel for how things run at Ikamva.  They have 4 “sector” heads who maintain their own budgets and staff.  All sectors have defined projects they work on that fit into the matrix I described in an earlier post.  Based on our first week, we believe that this is where Ikamva could use some help.  None of the sectors seem to have any defined metrics of success and there appears to be a lot of overlap in the projects such that it’s difficult to get a clear articulation of what they are doing.  This is where the Problem Solving class kicks in.  During the class you are given problems to work on in groups, problems that you must first research to get a good feel for the nature of the problem and possible solutions.  The goal at this stage is to be able to answer 3 questions about who the client’s customer is, what the client’s competitive advantage is, and what the nature of risk to the client is. After gleaning this information, you brainstorm with your group to come up with a hypothesis for a solution, your stake in the ground if you will, and then you define the issues surrounding this hypothesis.  Next you define a work plan based on what data will convince you and prioritize the work plan.

Holly and I feel comfortable with the first stage and have formulated our hypothesis: If the sectors had clearly articulated projects with appropriate performance metrics they would be able to generate impact evaluations and be able to better communicate needs and successes to donors. Our plan for Monday is to expand the hypothesis into a set of issues and work on creating our work plan.  We also have a status update meeting Monday with the executive team to make sure we’re understanding things correctly and that we’re on the right track.  This next week I’ll be looking to get a better handle of what Ikamva’s current IMS (information management system) does and how it might be leveraged to help them accomplish their goals.

On a side note, South Africa is a gorgeous country with a plethora of things to do and see.  Despite the “winter” weather (75 & sunny in winter? I’ll take it) we’ve been to the beach a couple of days, driven through wine country, and visited some great restaurants.  Today we’re taking a ferry over to Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned during Apartheid.  I only mention this here because Mendoza offers its students a great opportunity with this internship; one that I don’t know you would get with other programs.


Happy Summer

Hey Everyone!  My name is Andre, I’m going to be a 2nd year MBA student.  Here’s my first post, and brace for a fairly long one bc I had meant to write sooner.  I am interning at Sears Holdings Corporation (SHC) in Finance for the Footwear Business Unit.  It’s not a traditional “consulting” internship, but from what I can imagine, any internship is like a consulting trip: its a 10 week deep dive to try and solve a company problem.  Before I talk about Sears, a bit about myself.  I grew up in Long Island, NY then attended Duke for undergrad.  Upon leaving Duke, I worked as a merchandise planner (kind of a cross b/w marketing and finance) for Steve & Barry’s and then Steve Madden.  My concentration at Mendoza is Consulting, and my experiences this summer at Sears should provide perspective on what it’s like solving key business issues in a short-term engagement at a HUGE company, such as Sears Holdings, considering my previous stops have been in somewhat smaller shops.

Today marks close to 3 weeks already gone by in the internship, with 7 more to go.  It really has been a whirlwind of a time.  The recruiters/internship program organizers, as well as the managers in my department, have been great at welcoming the interns and incorporating them into the business structure. My boss (Divisional Vice President of Finance for Footwear) went through the steps of setting up introductory meetings for myself with everyone on my direct team, which takes a lot of the stress and anxiety out of the equation for me.  Additionally, interns are encouraged to meet and talk to as many people within the company (in other business units) as we can, to get a feel for the whole company not just your BU (more on why this is important later).  It also doesn’t hurt that the current acting CFO of the whole corporation (and full-time comptroller) currently is an ND grad (Bill Phelan – who actually came to campus to recruit and interview for the internship positions, one of which I have).

A bit about SHC and what I’m doing.  SHC houses both Sears and K-Mart.  Both formats (moreso Sears) are divided into hardlines (appliances, tools, etc.) and softlines (apparel, jewelry, footwear, consumables, etc.).  SHC is structured such that each individual BU is treated as a profit center, has its own P&L, and its managers are incentivized/bonused off of that specific BU’s results.  SHC has struggled a bit specifically when it comes to softlines (potential branding issue?), but from what I can tell, the Footwear BU is filled with sharp people, with vast experience.

The first two weeks I worked with the Director of Strategy on her Footwear 10-K report (solely for internal purposes; each BU also has a Board to further increase the similarities to an actual company).  I scoured all of our competitors’ (there’s a lot of them) 10-K’s to find useful nuggets on “key business strategies”, “current merchandising strategies”, ”competitive advantages”, and “perceived weaknesses”.  It involved a lot of combing through the 10k’s, which I didn’t mind because I didn’t have a ton of experience with those docs before hand.

The next week, I analyzed some customer data (HH Income, average # of trips per year, amount spent, categories shopped, etc.) to formulate any insights on what has changed year over year.  I was also able to run a DECILE analysis, which basically divides the entire customer base into 10 deciles based on profitability, so you can analyze all of these characteristics and see where the MOST profitable customer differs from the LEAST profitable.  Very cool data to see and manipulate (you’ll be able to tell I’m into numbers).

My main project for the summer (every intern here gets one, and it comes with a formal presentation at the end) focuses on Marketing Analytics for footwear’s spend on the Circular.  You may know, but Sears and K-Mart, and many other retailers, still send out “circulars” or printed, ad booklets every Sunday.  It is a very large marketing vehicle for the company.  I said “still” because pretty much no one in our generation relies on print very much for our news gathering, but the core Sears-K-Mart customer right now is an older one.  Regardless, footwear keeps buying space in this circular, without a solid idea of the investments’ ROI.  Here comes myself, riding onto the scene, guns -a-blazing on top of my steed, tasked with solving this issue.  SHC (not unlike a lot of companies) has a TON of data, but there are so many confounding factors in this analysis that are difficult to isolate.  In general, I hope to be able to organize the data and maneuver it in such a way to spin it into some kind of story (read: here’s a way to provide VALUE).  In future posts, I’ll  focus more on this project as it’s currently where I’ve sunk my teeth into.

Lastly, a bit about SHC in general.  The company is rolling through some tough times, and I’ve heard the words “transition” and “change” enough times to dominate catchphrase bingo.  Sales at Sears stores have been declining the last few years, and the company did post a 1q loss.  One thing I’ve become very curious about is Organizational Structure.  As mentioned before, SHC is broken out into separate business units, and there are certainly pro’s (accountability, performance) and cons (lack of cooperation across the units).   Structure appeals to me as a crucial strategic task of any company, especially a LARGE org like SHC.  (PLUG: I highly recommend taking Ramanan Ramachandran’s “Strategic Cost Management” course in the Spring, Mod 4.  He provides insightful, PRACTICAL (very key) insights into how companies are structured and focuses a ton on opportunity costs.  Opened up my eyes.)

So SHC’s current strategy, and it’s no secret, is investing in technology.  Whether that be online, multichannel (connecting stores to online to mobile) or wherever.  I don’t think it’s a bad one at all (competitors are following suit), but I guess we’ll all have to wait and see how it plays out.  For me, I’m happy where I am and I look forward to continuing this extended two-way interview (which, in reality, is what an internship really is!).

Talk to you soon,


P.S. Feel free to contact me directly with any questions/call-outs at amoskowi@nd.edu