Competencies through Commerce: Consulting in Argentina with M.S. in MIT

May 30, 2019
Argentina mountains and hikers in a field

Picture it: a week during late November—Argentinian spring—in Mendoza, a city on the foothills of the Andes in wine country.

For students in UVA McIntire’s M.S. in the Management of Information Technology, the 15 available seats in the program’s study-abroad course are a hotly sought commodity, with good reason.

Beyond the initial allure of trekking to one of South America’s most vaunted travel destinations, having the chance to apply newly acquired knowledge and lessons learned from the innovative executive-format master’s program in a real-world consulting setting is one that many would be hard-pressed to pass up. Further still, going abroad to test newly acquired knowledge in a real-world setting remains an unusual and enticing opportunity for an executive-format master’s program.

But despite all of its appealing positive aspects, this is no easy week away from home.

“Think of M.S. in MIT in Argentina as a business trip—not a vacation,” says IT Professor Stefano Grazioli, who has been leading the Mendoza jaunt since 2013.

Organized to develop effective IT leaders with intercultural project management competencies, the course tasks students with analyzing a company’s recently completed IT initiative. After interviewing managers, developers, users, and customers, the students then offer recommendations, which they deliver through a retrospective presentation and in-depth report. Given the expectations by the Argentinian clients, M.S. in MIT students are encouraged to approach the work as if they are part of a small consulting firm hired for the purpose of conveying specific, practical advice to their assigned Mendoza-based business.

Between the moment they arrive and the time they give their final presentation to clients on their final day in Argentina, students have an intense and unforgettable learning experience.

Other Methods, Mindsets, and Meetings
Hours after checking into their hotel rooms, students kick off the week by joining Argentina-based program coordinator David English at a local restaurant for a primer on doing business in the South American country. Though the M.S. in MIT students are armed with reading material well before the trip, their orientation upon arrival helps reinforce some of the finer points of the interactions.

Stressing differences in national attitudes toward punctuality, time, and organization, English says students need to be ready for dealing with host clients who have alternative views from theirs concerning the way that business should be done.

“There are cultural differences that we just can’t change,” English says. “When the students arrive, they need to understand those differences right off the bat so that they can hit the ground running when they get here.”

Grazioli says those different approaches to business offer students a view of alternative processes that, though foreign to American students, still work well.

“Sometimes there are so many implicit assumptions that we make in IT and business in general about how business should be done—about the need for organization, the need for planning, and the value of time—that we don’t question those assumptions,” he says.

The Argentinian concepts of time and risk are exemplary. “Argentines are not as punctual as perhaps North Americans are, but that’s normal. It gets incorporated into people’s lives, business meetings, and the way they operate,” Grazioli explains. “That allows them to be incredibly opportunistic. If an opportunity comes up, things get quickly set aside to pursue the more interesting, more lucrative opportunity. It’s truly remarkable in respect to North American culture, in which there is a much greater priority given to planning and due diligence and the idea of being opportunistic is simply not pursued as strongly.”

“For us, business risk is something to be measured, analyzed, and mitigated,” he says, noting that in Argentina, the risk is the uncertainty in the future from a macroeconomic standpoint, a political standpoint, and an inflationary, price strength standpoint. “The uncertainty is so large that nobody really spends time in long-term planning or risk evaluation because those plans get tossed out the window very quickly.”

English says the radically divergent business landscape and economic conditions between Argentina and the U.S. are other reasons that consulting there is such a rich experience.

“They can’t make financial forecasts that are one, three, or five years off in the future. That doesn’t make sense in this type of environment,” he says. “They also have to consider inflation, the cost of employees, and unions, since there is an extremely high rate of unionization here. So it’s the macroeconomics of Argentina that affect doing business now and in the near future.”

As an American who has been living and working in Mendoza for years, English has a perspective that’s invaluable to the McIntire graduate students. English explains that with Argentina having one of the world’s highest rates of inflation and a volatile political climate, students quickly learn to seriously consider those facets when making recommendations to local firms.

After their primer with English, the students have an important first meeting with their clients for dinner.

Though time is precious on the weeklong trip, Grazioli makes it clear in advance that the point of the gathering is not to talk business.

“It’s a relationship-building meeting. It’s different,” he says. “Some of our students really want to talk about the project right away. But the Argentinians want to ask students how many kids they have, what they’re driving, and where they go on vacation. It’s that establishment of the initial relationship that then allows them to be more comfortable Monday morning, when they go to work with the very same people at their companies.”

Getting in Step with Local Rhythms
One of the major challenges students have to overcome is the daily schedule of life in Mendoza.

While workdays start at 9 a.m. like they do in many areas across the globe, students stay on the job until about 1:30 p.m., when the employees of the company stop for the siesta—the traditional midday nap—before starting up again later that day.

“We bring the students back to the hotel so that they can do a siesta themselves,” Grazioli says. “We absorb the rhythms of the local culture and population. It’s absolutely necessary, because dinner starts at 8 p.m.—when they start early—and they last three hours at the minimum. Dinner until 11 is usual, but 9 to midnight is pretty normal for the Mendocinos.”

Kyle Lewis (M.S. in MIT ’19), a Business Systems Analyst for UVA’s Information Technology Services, found that the trip’s short timeframe made for a tight and rigorous schedule, even with the long, late dinners ensuring that students couldn’t plug away until all hours of the evening. “Our days were taken by client meetings, while our afternoons and evenings were busily spent working with our groups to ensure we met our goals,” he says.

Lewis’s classmate C. Janeen Goodnight (M.S. in MIT ’19), a Clinical Application Analyst at the UVA Health System, says the full immersion in a new daily structure was a challenging, but eye-opening experience. “In the U.S., we can easily work, work, work and wait until the last moment to then grab fast food to fuel up and work some more as needed. The concept of burning the midnight oil or even the midday oil is not at all part of the Argentine culture, nor in my opinion should it be.”

Grazioli believes that the lengthy breaks at lunch and dinner create space and energy for increased productivity.

“In a really unusual way, it feels like almost packing two working days into one. Because working from 9 to 1 is already a heavy load of visiting the sites, interviewing people, and looking at data. Then they have three hours to rest,” he says.

Grazioli adds that some students take time to catch up on some sleep, “because then there are three or four more hours, which is a good afternoon’s worth of work.”

“And they are somewhat rested,” he says, “because there’s been so many hours in between that it almost feels like another day. Potentially, the productivity goes up, especially for the students, because they do mornings on location, and afternoons they’re at the hotel preparing for the next day.”

Practical Applications, Authentic Significance
Working closely with Mendoza businesses throughout the intensive week offered students the type of hands-on collaboration that no theoretical lessons could ever approximate.

“A big part of the experience was deeper exposure to the IT management knowledge of my consulting team members and integrating this with my business experience to create real-world opportunities,” says John Young (M.S. in MIT ’19), former Director of Strategy and Project Management Office at the International Baccalaureate who found that the Argentina trip supported both his educational and employment goals.

“Business innovation today is almost always supported by IT, so I want the skills and experiences to work on the most compelling business transformations,” he says. “The more experience I can bring to the equation, the better prepared I will be for IT leadership roles.”

Lewis says that the trip dovetailed perfectly with the M.S. in MIT coursework, which provides tools critical for the project’s success as well as for his own growth—especially because consulting was an altogether new role for him. “Much of my critical thinking was centered on the topics and readings that we had done the month before. Without it, the trip wouldn’t have been nearly as beneficial for our host businesses.”

As the Argentinian firms stand to gain from the insightful review of their recent IT initiatives, they are full invested in what the students recommend and value their perspective as true professionals, says Grazioli. For students, discovering the level to which they are being entrusted to apply their skills is often a formative educational moment.

Grazioli recalls one particularly dramatic example of an epiphany that occurred when a winery was attempting its second implementation of a previously failed enterprise resource planning system.

“Late in the process, it became obvious to me and the students that the ownership of the company was using the team as a group of fresh eyes to assess the work of the project manager as well as the general manager of the company,” Grazioli says. “There was a clear sense in the last meeting, given the nature of the questions and the palpable tension in the room, that depending on what the team said, some fairly high-level jobs were at stake. There was one last meeting in the hotel with a phone call from the ownership. All of a sudden, the students realized it wasn’t a class exercise anymore—there were real consequences.”

Meaningful Investments
Beyond producing high-level outcomes for the local Mendoza businesses, the singular weeklong consulting endeavor leaves students with both practical IT leadership experience and interactions that make for incomparable, intercultural connections both within the context of IT consulting and outside of it.

English insists that the unofficial meetings are what strengthen bonds to make the relationships meaningful for McIntire students and Argentinian clients.

“Sometimes they’ll go over to someone’s house to have an asado barbeque, go out to a club to go dancing, or get together and drink mate (a traditional South American drink) in the park,” English says. “It’s a true intercultural exchange, and it’s a very personal experience. It’s amazing, the relationships and the bonds that are formed by the end of their week here. And at times, we’ve literally had McIntire students crying at the farewell dinner when it’s their turn to get up and say a few words about what it’s meant to them. Some have been profoundly moved by the engagement with their Argentine clients on a personal and professional level.”

Establishing connections during the trip impacts how students appreciate the cultural differences in business. Young, who has managed international teams and traveled frequently throughout his career, said the week in Mendoza still managed to be eye-opening for him: “The experience in Mendoza helped me more fully understand and value the people-over-process emphasis in Argentinian and other cultures by making the cultural differences more tangible. The M.S. in MIT team and its local partners gave us lots of preparation to successfully navigate and learn from the cultural differences, from food and wine to business practices. Interestingly, I learned that our day-to-day IT terminology travels well, at least with respect to the Argentinian business community.”

Lewis, who worked with the Familia Zuccardi winery, says that the warmth of the company’s people, coupled with the McIntire program’s expert guidance, made for a stimulating, unforgettable week.

“[The Zuccardi people] were so open with information and willing to learn, that it made the entire project much easier than we were expecting. They truly gave us a sense of Argentinian hospitality, and even hosted a little birthday party for one of our team members during the week,” he says. “The hard work from the teams of Professor Grazioli and David English made us feel welcome and intertwined with the culture of the city. Thanks to them, Mendoza feels like a second home that I could revisit whenever I wanted.”