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How and Why “Learning by Doing” Matters – Reflections from the GBSN Cambodia Summit

Last week I was in Phnom Penh, Cambodia for GBSN’s second “Learning by Doing” Summit, this one held with the National University of Management. The day-long dialogue explored the power of experiential education in management education. Nearly 60 participants from a dozen countries – including Myanmar, South Korea, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, the US and India – joined us for an insightful, interactive and practical conversation about how business schools can work with industry to develop meaningful and effective action-learning projects for their students.

In addition to highlighting diverse models from leading business schools in Asia, the summit featured discussion about the unique context of Cambodia and the particular relevance and challenges of experiential learning for their society.

A summary of the summit content will be posted separately. Here I wanted to reflect on three themes that echoed throughout the day’s dialogue for me: consequence, maturity and context.


The fundamental nature of the value that “learning by doing” holds for students is that it involves both experience and consequence. Dr. Kristiana Raube from the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley (USA) opened the proceedings by defining experiential learning as a “results-focused method” that “addresses actual business and leadership challenges” in a way that engages the learner in reality, not just theory. As the featured speakers from Nanyang Business School (Singapore), SKK Graduate School of Business (South Korea) and S.P. Jain Institute of Management and Research (India) explained their schools’ experiential learning approaches, I heard a recurring theme underlying their distinct programs. Namely, that a key factor of success is the existence of real consequence – social, personal and business – related to the lesson.

Dr. Ravi Kumar (Nanyang) described the transformation his former students from southern California experienced when they traveled to Asia or Latin America. Experiencing life and work in a foreign culture, these students had to quickly grasp local norms and adjust their behavior, or risk immediate social consequences.

Prof. Deepa Krishnan (SPJIMR) shared how a student mentoring a girl in a Mumbai slum had to assess her willingness to challenge status quo and be personally uncomfortable in order to advocate for what she thought was right. There were real personal consequences for this woman in the project at hand. She had to examine herself and make decisions that would affect her and the girl she was mentoring.

Vice-Dean Eric Shih (SKK) explained that action-learning projects need to be fully supported by the school’s business partner, as a project that has no real importance to the company does not provide a valuable learning opportunity. The pressure of a student’s work having real consequence on the activities or profits of someone’s business gives them an incentive beyond a class grade to learn and perform.

All of the programs these schools offer put students in supervised “real-world” scenarios where they have an emotional experience tied to the intellectual one. By introducing consequence into the learning process through experiential education, schools give students cognitive tools to process and assimilate theoretical lessons. In addition to improving knowledge transfer, these kinds of programs contribute to the development of maturity in students, a concept that stood out as another key theme at the Summit.


NUM’s Stephen Patterson moderates a panel of Industry representatives at the summit in Phnom Penh on August 1, 2016.


Every one of the featured industry representatives mentioned the need for maturity in business school graduates. Okhna Sok Piseth, CEO of G Gear – a young electronics company – talked about the need for work-ready students who have good communication skills and the ability to apply academic knowledge to a local business environment: “Theory isn’t different [around the world], but the execution is.”

Chang Bunleang, co-founder and Managing Director of a growing Cambodian specialty chain called Brown Coffee, said his HR manager often interviews candidates based on the experiential learning projects or trips that they did in school. These lessons figure heavily in the selection process because they reveal a graduate’s readiness to make decisions, work on a team and think critically about business challenges.

Zoe Ng, Managing Director of boutique office development firm Raintree Development, said plainly that “no matter how many case studies you do, the adoption in a local context is the challenge, and she emphasized that exposure to the business community in any form is important to prepare graduates for the working world.

By providing real consequences to students on social, personal and business levels, experiential learning programs develop maturity in students in a way that an isolated classroom-only curriculum cannot. This call for maturity and work-readiness in graduates is not new or exclusive to Cambodian businesses, but because of its turbulent recent history and fledgling business environment, experiential learning does have special role in Cambodian society. “If a business owner is over 50 they didn’t graduate from [business school], they graduated from war,” said G Gear’s Piseth. “They learned by experience, themselves.”


The Cambodia Minister of Education, Youth and Sport, H.E. Dr. Hang Chuon Naron, emphasized that the most important thing for business schools to do is to prepare and encourage students to address the region’s problems in an increasingly complex world. New technology is changing business, increasing opportunity while enabling a clash of cultures that is relatively new to Cambodia. If Cambodia is to continue to build and thrive, education will need to modernize, developing links between policy, academic research and practical application.

Higher education in Cambodia parallels the youth and growth of the business community. According to Dr. Naron, in 1998 there were 9000 students in the public higher education system in Cambodia. Today there are 118 universities with 260,000 students. However, he said, there is a skills mismatch between graduates and jobs. Society changed rapidly – from an agrarian economy to a modern one – but the educational system has not caught up. With the youngest population in Southeast Asia, Cambodia has a growing need for management and STEM skills.

Dr. Naron further explained that most business in Cambodia is family business and people learned by doing things themselves – “by imitation and by making mistakes.” Today these business owners are sending their children to top universities where they are learning by study and research, but they do not have the know-how or innovative spirit that their parents were forced to develop.

In this context there is enormous opportunity for experiential learning to both modernize education and provide a link between generations. Those who learned by doing when formal education wasn’t available can benefit from and mentor today’s students who have a firmer grasp of business theory, but a looser understanding of how to apply it.

The generational differences in education and the relative youth of the business environment combine to form Cambodia’s unique context for experiential learning. Due to the scarcity of large established corporations for business schools to work with on consulting projects, educators need to be creative in designing experiential learning projects that connect and add value to the local small and medium enterprises (SMEs) that make up the Cambodian economy.

Raintree Development’s Ng encouraged the development of forums to create relationships between academia and SMEs in order to identify ways that students could work with them. And they do want students to work with them. While Ng conceded that foreign students usually have a more experiential background, Cambodian students have local context and therefore face lower barriers to action in the regional context. The challenge, she said, is to structure projects so students can work with growing companies that may not have the capacity to host and mentor them in the same way large corporations do in traditional student consulting models familiar to business schools in more developed countries.


Many thanks to NUM Rector Hor Peng (center) and the entire GBSN Experiential Learning Advisory Committee for their work in making the summit a success.

Moving Forward

While there are issues unique to the Cambodian environment, it is clear to me that these questions of context are relevant in many countries around the world where large corporate partners are few and far between, and where business schools are more likely to be preparing students for entrepreneurship and management in local businesses than for work in multinational corporations.

Around the globe we in the education community hear the drumbeat from employers that they want mature graduates who have the soft skills necessary to thrive in a work environment. And from GBSN members on every continent we see the impact that consequential experiential learning opportunities have on students. These programs are often the most difficult and the most rewarding of their academic careers. The challenge for business schools is to design effective experiential learning programs that match their programs’ learning objectives with available resources and project opportunities.

We know this isn’t always easy, which is why GBSN will continue to work with our Experiential Learning Advisory Committee to provide opportunities to learn, share and explore experiential learning around the globe.

I’m grateful to our hosts at the National University of Management for helping us bring this special event to Cambodia, and I look forward to further collaborations with them. Coming up next GBSN will host an Experiential eLearning Summit in Berlin on November 30, and will soon launch a new online course on building a student consulting program at your business school. I look forward to more regional Summits like this one as well, giving GBSN members and others in the business school community a forum to advance and strengthen management education around the globe.

Page Schindler Buchanan is the Chief Operating Officer for the Global Business School Network.