Students competing to come up with the best idea for Arla

At the first AU Challenge, held on Wednesday 4 April, the participants in Aarhus University’s new case competition addressed the task of solving a concrete challenge for Arla with passion and determination. AU Challenge is both an independent competition and preparation for the open part of the well-established Aarhus Case Competition.

2018.04.16 | Signe Schou

[Translate to English:] Foto: Lars Kruse, AU Foto

It’s 2pm, and the sun is shining on a couple of filled rows of chairs and a projection screen in Incuba's premises. Right now, this is the stage, although the main roles will be played backstage. This is where we find the group tables where 44 students from 29 different disciplines and with 15 different nationalities will soon be taking their seats to solve a case for Arla.

They are taking part in Aarhus University's new case competition, the AU Challenge, in which the students - within a very short time and with a sharp deadline - try their hand at coming up with a good solution to a real challenge faced by Arla. There is more than honour at stake, since Arla also offers a prize.

Concentration levels are rising. The organisers are testing the equipment, and the increasing silence is only interrupted by a student who comes flying through the room to join his group in the row of chairs.

Merethe Kruse is project manager for the AU Challenge and has been in charge of setting up the new concept, together with two student assistants and six volunteers. Taking part in a case competition is both a professional and a personal achievement for the participants, she points out:

“A case competition is a learning format where students can use their professional skills in a direct way to create value. And, first of all, it’s fun. The idea behind the AU Challenge is primarily to strengthen the students’ career skills. When students participate in a case competition, they get experience from working with companies, gain relevant content for their CVs and, not least, the courage and self-confidence to be more externally oriented in their degree programme, for example by writing their Master’s thesis in collaboration with a company.”

Arla has delivered a case for today’s challenge, and Irene Quist Mortensen, CSR Business Partner at Arla International, is one of today's jury members at the AU Challenge. She can see clear benefits from participating in a creative process like this with students from the university:

“The best thing we can achieve from AU Challenge is a great idea, and we're counting on being inspired by some of the solutions we see today. We hope to see a new take on something we’ve considered ourselves, to make us think in a new direction,” says Irene Quist Mortensen, emphasising that Arla can also see an important recruitment perspective from cooperating with Aarhus University on AU Challenge.

Ready-set-go

Yet the participants do not know in advance what they will actually be presented with. This is not revealed until the actual day. Now, this big moment is about to occur. Arla announces: “How can on-the-go products become more sustainable with regard to packaging?” The students can use materials, value chain, recycling opportunities, marketing and branding, or something entirely different, as the starting point for their presentation of a proposed solution to the jury.

The atmosphere in the room changes immediately. Four by four, the students flock to their group tables, and the buzz of their voices begins. Each group has a coach who can help with questions about the process, qualify ideas, evaluate business potential and provide feedback to the groups.

The groups already know each other, since as part of the AU Challenge concept, they have attended four workshops prior to today. Here, they have learned about problem solving and collaboration methods, as well as business understanding and presentation techniques. Today, they are finally trying their hand with the case competition format, testing their creativity and ability to cooperate and deliver results under time pressure.

“It’s not a requirement to have participated in a case competition before. Under AU Challenge, you learn everything from scratch. The introductory workshops give an introduction to working with complex problems, and a profile test gives individual students an insight into both their own and their fellow students’ professional and personal strengths, working methods and contributions in a group context,” explains Merethe Kruse.

Many disciplines are a strength

AU Challenge is a practice run for the major Aspire competition, which is the open part of the well-established Aarhus Case Competition. Yet AU Challenge is also a competition in itself with its own distinctive feature – an interdisciplinary approach. The groups are composed of students with different academic backgrounds, such as Team Big Bang, which has students from politics and economics programmes, engineering, medicine and international business communication. One of them is medical student Ahmed Mohamed Ali Sigad. He sees the interdisciplinary approach of AU Challenge as a strength:

“We all need experience from working together across different backgrounds."

Christine Walsted Hede, who studies international business communication, agrees:

“Solving cases and working together in project groups is something you’ll do throughout your working life. It’s a learning experience to work with different types of people and gain experience of how to solve a case from a business perspective. Here, we’re learning to work on the basis of diversity.”

The interdisciplinary approach and the group's ability to cooperate also count for 20% in the assessment of the group's proposed solution, when the jury is to select a winner. The strong weight given to cooperation skills is a deliberate choice.

“With AU Challenge, we want to help students to break down barriers between professional disciplines, create networks and strengthen cohesion across the faculties,” says Merethe Kruse, before adding:

“When students build up interdisciplinary competences, they also gain insight into their own professional skills by viewing them in the context of other expertise. This makes them more aware of their own competences.”

Pitch to the jury

The groups have completed their work, and the time is now 7.30pm. The students gather in the large auditorium. The jury, which comprises two representatives from Arla, one from Boston Consulting Group and the Dean of Aarhus BSS, is seated in the first row.

One by one, the 11 groups take the stage to deliver their pitch. The high standard is clearly apparent from the research, results and the actual presentation of the proposed solutions. The participants answer critical questions from the jury and unfold their solutions. The ideas vary considerably. Some are based on design, and some on materials, while others concern changing the collection systems so that more packaging can be recycled.

Now, it's up to the jury. The participants are tired, but keen to hear the result. Team Big Bang stands a little to one side. They have pitched an idea for a new type of rubbish bin that can read a code on the packaging and open the part of the rubbish bin that the packaging belongs to.

“It’s been fun to have to do something concrete and actually use what we’ve learnt to solve a problem. Obviously, the best case scenario is that we win. But there's fierce competition, and the most important thing is that we've had some training for our next challenge in Aspire,” says Lone Hellerøe Myrtue, who studies politics and economics at Aarhus BSS.

Jakob Riber Rasmussen, engineering student in biotechnology, adds:

“I normally work with people with a very similar profile and approach to tasks and structure, and it’s been rewarding and instructive to come here and experience a completely different way of tackling things.”

And the winner is …

Jury member Irene Quist Mortensen from Arla takes the stage. The volunteers stand ready in the wings with flowers, and the champagne has been poured.

Team Joint Effort, and not Team Big Bang, are the victors. They have pitched a concept for Arla to engage in a strategic partnership with a start-up company that produces biodegradable plastic according to a ‘cradle to cradle’ principle.

“Your presentation was simple and clear, with a good storyline. The idea is a bit risky, but we like the courage you are demonstrating by suggesting it,” says the Arla jury member, Irene Quist Mortensen, before continuing:

“It was a close race and it was difficult to pick a winner. You all made an excellent effort, and we thank you for all your contributions. It’s amazing that you achieved so much within such a short time.”

Besides a trophy, the winners will spend one day with Arla's HR department, which includes an intelligence and logic test that is usually reserved for applicants for management positions.

See more pictures from AU Challenge


Facts about AU Challenge

  • AU students from the final year of the BA or Master’s degree programme can participate.
  • Everyone submits a personal statement, and this year, 44 students were selected to participate.
  • The groups are compiled on an interdisciplinary basis, using the results of a profile test.
  • They attend four workshops, where they learn more about collaboration, presentation techniques, business understanding and problem solving methods.
  • A company sets a challenge that is based on a real business problem.
  • The groups have four hours to come up with a solution and create a presentation for the jury.
  • The AU Challenge winners receive a prize, but all groups can continue to Aspire, which is the open part of the acclaimed Aarhus Case Competition.

Cooperation partners

  • Arla
  • Boston Consulting Group
  • Aarhus Case Competition

Jury

Irene Quist Mortensen, CSR Business Partner, Arla International

Anna Flysjö, Life Cycle Sustainability Manager, Arla

Constantin Probst, Principal, Boston Consulting Group

Thomas Pallesen, Dean, Aarhus BSS

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