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GBS Synchrony visit

Yale Global Business and Society Students Tackle a ‘Live Case Study’

As part of their Global Business & Society Perspectives course, Yale students worked with Synchrony to develop a new financial services product. The complex real-world challenge pushed teams of students to put all their business skills to use.

By Matthew O’Rourke

When Bianca Lontoc ’19 began working with a team of four of her classmates on a new financial services product for Synchrony, she brought experience and ideas from her background working in the fintech sector in the Philippines. She’d also already completed a master’s in management at IE Business School and had two months of courses at the Yale School of Management under her belt. The intensive team project not only taught her about how consumers use credit in the United States, but also pushed her to learn from the perspectives of teammates from all over the world.

“I come from a fintech background, but then I realized there was so much I needed to still learn about the market here in the United States,” Lontoc said. “In so many places, we don’t use cards anymore, but QR codes. I realized then we can’t use the same things we know from the market in Asia, because it’s just so different, but there might be something we could add to give another point of view.”

For one week in October, students in the inaugural class of Yale SOM’s Global Business and Society (GBS) program worked on a “live case study” with Synchrony, serving in the role of consultants for the major U.S. financial services company. Synchrony, which was spun off from General Electric in 2014, is the largest U.S. provider (based on purchase volume and receivables) of “private label” cards, those issued by stores and other companies. The goal was to help the company innovate and to find ways to bring a new financial product to market.

The intensive week was the culmination of the first six weeks of the Global Perspectives course, the anchor of the yearlong GBS curriculum, which challenges students to broaden their thinking as they take on big issues. In the course, the students study a variety of Yale’s “raw” online cases, sifting through an assortment of resources—including raw data, news articles, and interviews—and applying a variety of management tools in understanding complex, often ambiguous situations.

For the Synchrony case, there was an additional challenge: after studying a raw case, focused on Synchrony’s efforts to adapt to the spending habits of millennials, the students traveled down Interstate 95 to the company’s Stamford, Connecticut, headquarters. By working directly with the company’s leadership, students would get the chance to ask questions and get live feedback—and then they would need to deliver a proposal that addressed the needs of their real-world clients.

“The Synchrony live case is the first opportunity for students to take their classroom learning to another level by applying it to a real-world scenario,” said Deputy Dean David Bach, who teaches the class. “The students are placed into situations where they need to leverage their teams to quickly get up to speed on an industry they don’t know a whole lot about.” 

Students in the Global Business and Society program arrive at Yale SOM with  academic experience from one year of master in management studies at a member school in the Global Network for Advanced Management. The GBS curriculum allows them to stretch, expanding on what they’ve learned in their first master’s degree program, said Melissa Fogerty, assistant dean of management master’s programs. “Working on projects with companies like Synchrony gives students a chance to apply their learning in different environments and to grasp where the academic training meets real-world requirements.”

GBS students come from all over the world, so part of the learning experience in the conversations with Synchrony was gaining a deeper understanding of how consumers use credit in the United States—for example, how Americans might use several different cards to pay for items based on how a company’s rewards structure operates. In return, students shared with executives insights from their regions.

“Coming from North America, I had some experience with this and how it worked, but it was interesting to see what my classmates had to say,” said Olivier Viel ’19, who completed his first master’s degree at UBC Sauder School of Business. “We have access to these different points of view, and we can see what might work in different situations on the ground.”

After meeting with Synchrony officials and gathering background at the company, students spent a weekend completing field research in area towns and gathering data from local businesses that use some of Synchrony’s existing products—for example, they interviewed the owners of local businesses, including furniture shops, tanning salons, and automobile dealerships, to learn how they used credit in their own companies. They would have less than a week to prepare proposals for the company. But first they’d get a lesson from a Yale SOM innovation expert on how to frame such a proposal.

Using Reframing to Help Synchrony Understand Its Customers

Days after visiting Synchrony, the class found themselves sorting through their research notes and sticking Post-Its to a wall describing potential customers. One was a 38-year-old woman named Barbara who was unhappy with her work. Another, a man running a local furniture store trying to provide for his family. None were real people; rather, they were archetypes used in a reframing session run by Professor Rodrigo Canales to help students understand the needs of the customers that Synchrony is trying to reach.  

“When you reframe a problem, you end up with examples that are much more grounded in reality that can get to the heart of the matter you’re trying to solve,” Canales said. “You can end up with a more diverse and better articulation of what it means to add value to people. You begin to ask, ‘how are you going to help Barbara develop a more established business?’ You can really drill down on pain points that these people already have even though they’re using your services, but you’ll have a much more specific view of the value you can add that we’re not currently adding.”

That approach helped Jieh-Fu Chu ’19, one of Lontoc’s teammates, think about the product from a customer perspective.

“When I first approached this, I wasn’t sure what to expect from Synchrony or otherwise,” said Chu. “By making this archetype though, it’s really helped me to understand how this works from a different perspective. It gives you this moment to say, ‘Let’s look at this from their point of view’ and see how they think.”

Proposals with a Global Perspective

On the final day, students presented their findings to a panel of executives from Synchrony and made recommendations for the best ways to implement the new product. One proposal would add rewards structures to credit cards for businesses; another introduced incentive programs encouraging consumers to visit other Synchrony merchants for special deals. Ken Yoon YC ’96, vice president for business development and strategy at Synchrony, was impressed. The collaboration has many benefits for Synchrony, he said—for example, by working with a global group of students, the company, which is primarily based in the United States, was able to gain valuable insights and ideas as to how credit markets work abroad. And it was clear that students also learned a lot, pushing themselves to deliver actionable proposals, in an unfamiliar context and in a short timeframe.

“They were able to talk about the work and a very specific component of the company and challenge assumptions we provided them,” Yoon said. “I was honestly surprised and impressed by how well they were able to put this all together.”

And the engagement with executives from a real company amplified the learning experience for students, Bach said.  “Through the [partnership] with Synchrony, [GBS students] learned both the details of a particular challenge and the mindset successful leaders need to make a difference in an organization.”