Product Management: a unique delivery

By Tessa Shaw

How do you turn on the taps of innovation and deliver a subject that will inspire your students? In Product Management, Bachelor of Commerce students are not just told why processes are developed, but also have real-life industry experts stepping in to show them the ropes and provide invaluable insight and mentoring.

When Dr Ilkka Ojansivu was asked to coordinate the subject, Product Management, at the Faculty of Business and Economics, he decided that it was time for a subject that drives innovation to take on an innovative teaching approach.

In 2017, students were treated to a new way of learning through a semi-immersive method that saw heads of global design agency, Fjord, come on board to co-deliver classes.

“To me, this was a way to inject a bit more fun to their learning, while delivering practical solutions,” Dr Ojansivu explained.

“Product development always occurs in a context. Therefore, students need to learn to use the tools and techniques in a real company context,” he continued. “There needs to be a balance between academic rigour and contextual relevance. Incorporating an interesting company collaboration facilitates this interplay between rigor and relevance.”

Tutor Dr Mayuri Wijayasundara added that students benefit from working so closely with industry experts, saying, “They get to understand how professionals work and why they make certain decisions. It is a vital step in gaining true exposure to the professional standards usually achieved for this kind of work.”

Fjord lecture
Product Management class in session, with a guest lecturer from Fjord

Fjord didn’t disappoint either, sending some of their leading people onto our campus to participate in the lectures. Students are provided in-depth exposure into the entire product management life cycle through a combination of a classroom perspective delivered through lectures and tutorials, and learning from Fjord through interactive Q+A sessions and hands-on activities. The subject covers topics ranging from processes, strategic planning, conceptualisation, research and development, to product launch and post-launch issues.

Mark Jones, Head of User Experience, ANZ, was one of Fjord’s representatives at the classes and was full of praise for the students. “I was very impressed by the student engagement during the lectures,” he said. “There were great questions and you could sense a real energy during the breakout activities.”

These activities included working on the mid-semester assignment – a group challenge: students formed teams of four to tackle the topic ‘Youth Housing’. Lily James, who also tutors in the subject, was delighted by the variety of angles that students displayed in approaching the topic. “Some groups considered the lack of affordable housing and rental issues, others tackled housemate matching and compatibility dilemmas,” she remarked. “It was fantastic to see them draw from all spaces for inspiration, seeking feedback and perspective from peers, academics and our industry mentors, that informed their final pitch ideas.”

The top five teams were invited into Fjord’s offices for a presentation and feedback session, where they had the opportunity to spend time with company executives who highlighted their strengths and weaknesses, allowing the students to gain valuable input into areas for improvement, and generously given tips for taking their products to market.

Team checkmate
L-R: Joanne Lee, William Wong, Dr Ilkka Ojanvisu, Russell Ng and Linda Cai

One such team comprised of students, Linda Cai, Joanne Lee, Russell Ng and William Wong, who came up with the idea of ‘Checkmate’, when upon reviewing current real estate services, realised that most focused mainly on solving individual ‘pain points’ for international students, namely: efficient rental services, locating a home-sharing option, finding suitable flatmates and property maintenance. There didn’t appear to be a service that covered the intersection of all four points, showing a potential gap in the housing market for such a service. ‘Checkmate’, described simply, is a search platform with a built-in profile interface for user interactions and managing service requests, allowing users to effectively tap into one or all of these main four points of locating the right housing.

Ng lauded the benefits of having the presence of Fjord so well-woven into their learning. “It was really refreshing and exciting to be able to present our concepts to people from the industry,” he enthused. “To us, as students, this opportunity offered validation on our work – there are very few subjects that would allow us to receive direct advice from the experts.”

“For example, we were taught that in the conceptualising phase, consider approaching the idea in a reverse fashion, which might allow you to uncover a point previously missed!”

The practical, real-life approach motivated the students, who quickly realised what it meant to take their work outside of the classroom, appreciating the importance of being able to fine-tune their skills.

We learned how crucial it is to take into consideration the needs and opinions of all relevant stakeholders, from potential business partners, to suppliers, to customers. Russell Ng

James added that the cleverness in the delivery of this subject meant that the theories and concepts discussed in the classroom are brought to life. “For many students, it has allowed them to trial a career in Product Management,” she elaborated. “They are able to consider, ‘What would it be like?’ This truly is a unique experience.”

“Today’s world is dynamic and consumer needs are complex and continuously changing,” Sarah Sadiq, another subject tutor, added. She also stressed the importance of acknowledging that in today’s world, a large portion of sustainable advantage is derived from ‘service design’. She is confident that learning from both world-class academics and directly from industry leaders, and encouraging them to think beyond physical products, will only further broaden the skills of students.

This subject is designed to take the next generation of business leaders through the path of discovering various consumer needs, designing and developing products and services that cater to these needs in order to win in the market. Sarah Sadiq

Jones, a former University of Melbourne student himself said there was a bit of déjà vu in returning to his alma mater, and he thoroughly enjoyed the experience. “It was fantastic to come back and share my experiences and commercial practices. Co-presenting both theory and industry perspectives provides great counterpoints – they build off each other to provide interesting, yet real, insights for the students.”

Here are Jones’ top tips for students keen on doing well in product management:

  1. People, people, people – involve your customers and users every step of the way
  2. The entire service – continually consider the broader service ecosystem around the product
  3. Stay the course – delivering great products to market takes immense determination

"When our Commerce students graduate, we want them to have a strong sense of industry – both its demands, and also the fun side," Dr Ojanvisu said with a smile. "With subjects like Product Management, I think we have really achieved this."

Product Management is a third-year Marketing subject. 

Bachelor of Commerce students are encouraged to engage with industry through in-class collaboration, clubs and societies, and the popular commerce consulting capstone subjects.