The sleet falling on the ground of a charity a few miles from INSEAD’s Fontainebleau campus has sent most people indoors for the day. Only a group of MBA students, occasionally rubbing their hands or doing star jumps to ward off the chill, remain outside to work hard at their task. Across the world in Singapore, their peers shelter to allow a brief monsoon shower to pass before heading back to their project.
Taking part in a Splash project is now an integral part of the MBA course. To date, more than 4,500 INSEAD students have been involved in the initiative. The programme works by first of all taking the cohort of students to a lecture hall where they are introduced to the community project they will be supporting through building a new facility. The students learn about the people this facility will help. Then, after being split into groups, they are tasked with planning how to carry out the project amongst themselves – with no designated leaders. The build starts the following day, with each group taking it in turn to do their share. At the end of the project, the students will have created something tangible, such as a new sports facility, sensory garden, or adventure play area which will benefit the charity. They will have made a real difference to the local community, and at the same time bonded with each other and learned essential leadership and team-building skills.
“Splash is important as a team-building exercise but there are lots of different ways to conduct team-building,” says the Dean of INSEAD, Professor Ilian Mihov. “What Splash also does is show that there are issues in society and that it is possible to take action. We don’t have to just analyse it – we can act.”
“I think that’s a valuable lesson for our MBA students. Hopefully the next time they see a problem they might say: ‘Maybe we could do something about that’,” he adds.
The Splash project, which all MBA and a number of Executive Education programme participants undertake, is now a firmly established tradition at INSEAD and, according to consistent feedback, is also a very popular one. But it isn’t just about building something for those most in need. The projects are integrated into the curriculum, with INSEAD academics sharing the stage at the intensive pre and post project learning sessions. Akin to a crisis situation in business, the participants have no prior warning of the details of the task and no-one is pre-chosen to lead. The students have to organise themselves and think on their feet while working against the clock. During the build itself, the students need to tackle additional challenges.
By taking participants out of their comfort zone, the project also has many rewards in terms of personal development. Do you have an alpha personality? Then you will be required to step back and be led. Are you lacking in public speaking experience? Then you will be encouraged to seize every opportunity to step up and speak.
With 53% of INSEAD alumni involved in some sort of entrepreneurial activity during their careers and with the Executive Education programme training many of the world’s leading heads of business, the understanding that business can make a difference to society has potential for real impact.
Splash Projects is a UK-based company which also works with the likes of Santander, Bank of America and BAE Systems. It was created specifically to provide businesses with opportunities for personal and team development, whilst helping communities.
“The two components go very much hand in hand,” said Simon Poole, its founder and Managing Director, who was in the British Army before starting the business.
“Knowing their work will help others, particularly children, really drives the participants on. People learn all sorts of lessons about themselves, about successful leadership, influencing others and team dynamics. Most of all we hope they realise the difference they can make.”
INSEAD was founded with the ethos of using business positively, by helping to bring together and rebuild nations soon after the end of World War II. Dean Mihov is keen that INSEAD continues in that spirit today.
“I think INSEAD is a very different school to many others. It was set up in 1959 with a very noble purpose. Our founder Georges Doriot didn’t just want to bring management education to Europe. Students had to speak German, French and English and so from day one it was to be an international school, with the aim of generating peace and prosperity by bringing people to work together,” he says.
Dean Mihov has always personally been a strong believer in business as a force for good.
“I think business can be a strong component to helping society. We see more and more of our students engaging in social activities but in a new way. In the 1960s and 70s it was protesting against governments but nowadays it’s: ‘we can see there’s a problem, let’s solve it.’ We don’t expect governments to solve it anymore,” he says.
With an estimated $1.25 million in value already gained by the charities within the Splash/INSEAD programme through donated materials and saved labour costs, the MBA and Executive Education participants at INSEAD are already doing just that.