Real-World Consulting: Benefits for All

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Tuesday, August 9, 2022
By Frank M. Smith, Anil Kumar
Photo by iStock/seb_ra
Consulting services at the Center for Excellence at Texas A&M University–Commerce provide rich returns for students, faculty, and clients.
  • The school’s Center for Excellence is approaching 1 million USD in billing and has gross profit returns of approximately 60 percent.
  • Students have consulted for defense contractors, local businesses, and regional governmental offices.
  • The center is headed by a retired executive and operates by a business model that aligns with the university’s central processes.

At Texas A&M University–Commerce (TAMUC), we’re focused on living up to our mission: “Inspire transformational learning. Create applied knowledge. Forge impactful connections.” One of the ways we achieve this mission is through the work of our Center for Excellence (CFE), which provides billable training and consulting services to regional businesses and local governments. Through CFE, we forge impactful connections by engaging with stakeholders, create applied knowledge by completing projects for clients, and inspire transformational learning by bringing students in as consultants.

CFE has three main functions. It connects faculty to organizations that need their subject matter expertise, which facilitates their research. It furnishes students with on-the-job experiential learning opportunities. And it compensates faculty and students for their efforts, and then it returns profits to the college.

Facts and Figures

Since CFE was founded in 2017, it has relied on a powerful combination of grants and project billing to become a self-funded enterprise. Most of CFE’s projects bill in the range of 25,000 to 40,000 USD, with its total billing approaching 1 million USD and its gross profit returns reaching approximately 60 percent. From this money, contributing faculty are reimbursed at a rate comparable to what they would earn for teaching an additional graduate-level course. Students who act as consultants receive 600 USD in the form of scholarships; those who serve as project managers receive 1,200 USD, also in the form of scholarships.

In addition, the center has directly secured two grants from the U.S. federal government and one from the State of Texas, and it has been instrumental in assisting local governments to obtain grants on their own behalf. CFE has relied on some of these grants to develop training programs aimed at raising the employability of our students.

For instance, using 350,000 USD provided by a major defense company, CFE has partnered with the SAP University Alliance to embed SAP transactions within multiple courses, with the result that 75 of our graduates are SAP-certified. CFE currently is using a 49,568 USD grant from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to develop a curriculum of product management courses in response to industry needs.

Real-World Opportunities

One of the key activities of the center is coordinating faculty-led graduate student consulting engagements that can be challenging and complex in nature. Since the center was opened, 15 faculty members have developed and delivered professional training courses and directed consulting projects, involving 65 students, for 14 clients.

For instance, a team of TAMUC faculty and students provided consulting services to a local manufacturing company that was faced with a significant turnover problem. The TAMUC team met with HR and operations managers at the company, conducted qualitative interviews with 11 high-performing employees, and collected quantitative survey results from 122 production employees. Then the TAMUC consultants developed a behavior-based interview tool that would help the interviewers stay on track during the hiring process, and they also developed training on how to use the tool. An HR manager later told the team that HR staff believed the tool had been instrumental in helping the company reduce turnover by half.

According to Stephanie Pane Haden, the professor of management who oversaw the project, the project had three outcomes. It was beneficial to the company, it provided a rich and valuable learning experience to four TAMUC students, and it became the basis of a paper that the faculty members on the team are writing to submit to a human resources journal.

The project was beneficial to the company, it provided a valuable learning experience to four students, and it became the basis of a paper that faculty members are writing.

Other CFE projects also have provided students with a wide range of learning opportunities. Here is a sampling of some of the most notable ones:

  • A team worked on an environmental study identifying the types of businesses and services needed to support the workers constructing the 440 million USD Lake Ralph Hall Reservoir in Ladonia, Texas, to meet the water consumption demand within the region. The project was overseen by Brandon Randolph-Seng and Yasemin Atinc, faculty members from the departments of management and marketing. They worked with teams of graduate students who conducted in-depth research about the economic impact of the reservoir, inventoried the businesses and services that already existed within Ladonia, and forecast the potential opportunities the lake would create over five years. Throughout the project, students collected primary and secondary data through face-to-face interviews and market analysis; they also had opportunities to apply their business knowledge to a real-life situation.
  • Mohamed Komaki, assistant professor of business analytics, worked with six students to survey residents and business owners in Farmersville, Texas, to discover what they needed and expected from internet access. The team was able to use 3.7 million USD in CARES Act funding that had been obtained to implement broadband internet. After collecting and analyzing the questionnaires, the group presented results to the city manager and city council members.
  • Students helped design an intellectual property management system and program a flight simulator for two major defense companies. Because these efforts took place on campus, TAMUC’s international students were able to participate, which they could not have done if the work had been conducted on the premises of the defense companies.
  • A team created a plan for attracting aluminum extruder companies to the city by working with the Commerce Economic Development Corporation (CEDC) and using 22,835 USD in funding supplied by a USDA Rural Business Opportunity Grant. Among other things, notes CEDC executive director Bonnie Hunter, the team sent 150 customized emails to executives at aluminum extruder companies throughout the U.S. to invite them to consider Commerce as a place to do business.
  • Students participated in two projects with Fortune 500 company Lockheed Martin. In one, students assessed global sustainable organizations and recommended potential opportunities for Lockheed Martin based on each company’s intellectual property (IP) portfolio. In another, students analyzed tools to manage the IP lifecycle from concept through valuation and disposition. Students uncovered potential key performance indicators (KPIs) for the company and created strategic plans to drive sustainability outcomes.
  • “My current position requires measuring different KPIs to improve the Atlanta Public School System’s transportation performance,” says Puya Goudarzi, who participated in both Lockheed Martin projects as a TAMUC student. “I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to work on some of the projects and learn new skills that allowed me to land a better job.”

Valuable Lessons

Opening a consulting center can represent an institution’s first step on a journey to becoming a thought leader in its region. But launching and scaling a center can be challenging, because both activities require a school to invest major amounts of time and energy. During our years of operating CFE, we’ve learned six key lessons that we can share with other schools interested in opening similar facilities:

Choose an executive director who has experience in engagement and consulting. Leading a center is a time-consuming job that requires extensive networking with stakeholders in nonacademic settings. A great choice would be an alum who is transitioning into retirement. The current director of CFE is a retired IBM executive who led similar efforts for the Pamplin College of Business at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.

Align the center’s business model with that of the university. A center’s efforts can be derailed if its proposed business model does not receive support from central organizational units in areas such as accounts payable and receivable, procurement, human resources, and the office of sponsored programs.

Opening a consulting center can represent an institution’s first step on a journey to becoming a thought leader in its region.

Engage faculty by presenting projects as opportunities to apply their academic research in real-world settings. This is an important way to convince faculty members to participate, as they are constantly seeking avenues for exploring the societal impact of their research. Further, faculty should be reminded that they can use results of these projects in the classroom to enhance the learning experiences of students.

Frequently share news about project successes. Projects can be demanding, requiring heavy time commitments from faculty who are already overwhelmed with work. If center personnel provide updates about recent successes, faculty are more likely to desire to participate.

Designate graduate students to serve as project managers. These students also can coordinate the deliverable expectations of the other student consultants. When students lead projects, faculty members can cut back on the time they need to invest. In addition, students have a chance to develop their own leadership expertise.

Provide students with additional opportunities to hone their skills. At CFE, we offer an optional pre-internship experience where students can practice their interviewing skills and get feedback on their résumés. We also offer extra training for those chosen as student leaders.

“We think this helps to get the students ready for the next opportunity, whether it is another internship or a job interview,” says Chris Myers, a professor of marketing and business analytics. “Our goal is to raise the experiential level for students so that they are more prepared for the real world.”

Signs of Success

Not only does our center exemplify the mission of TAMUC, it also aligns with AACSB’s three strategic pillars. CFE is an example of innovation because it is completely self-funded, it is modeled after consulting firms, and it operates with the help of volunteer collaborators. The center provides engagement because it interacts with business clients, regional economic development agencies, and federal grant offices. And it produces an impact because it connects faculty to businesses and local governments; it also helps students win scholarships, acquire certifications, land jobs, and develop leadership skills.

The university periodically assesses the work of CFE by measuring gross billing and profit margins, the number of clients retained, the number of faculty and students participating, and the number of recognitions the center has received.

We feel that another mark of our success is the enthusiastic reviews we receive from our clients. For instance, Marc A. Moore, Technical Training Manager, Operations, Recon Mission Systems L3-Harris Technologies Inc., says that “the A&M–Commerce College of Business has proven to be a great partner with flexible delivery, on-point contact, and the inclusion of a number of qualified company subject matter experts in adjunct roles.”

Our Center for Excellence has created a unique opportunity for the College of Business at TAMUC to have societal impact in a way that aligns with our mission. Our faculty and students look forward to the professional training and consulting opportunities we will offer next so they not only can sharpen their own skills, but also do good in the world.

Frank M. Smith
Director, College of Business Center of Excellence, Texas A&M University–Commerce
Anil Kumar
Associate Dean, Texas A&M University–Commerce
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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