360 Consulting Projects Make Students Job-Ready

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Tuesday, April 30, 2024
By Christine Contessotto, Pete Williams, Wade Halvorson
Photo by iStock/svetikd
At Deakin Business School, student consultants provide in-depth analyses of the operational, financial, and strategic health of participating SMEs.
  • In Deakin’s Business Development Clinic, students don’t take on an SME’s pre-defined problems; instead, they perform “health checks” to uncover growth gaps and challenges.
  • Students employ a tool called the 7 Levers Framework to help businesses craft a practical strategic plan for increasing profit.
  • Sixty-two percent of client companies have implemented the strategic recommendations provided by Deakin’s student consultants.

How can business schools respond when employers call for work-ready graduates? At Deakin University’s Deakin Business School (DBS) in Victoria, Australia, we give all students the opportunity to undertake live consulting projects with real businesses.

DBS students are presented with a diverse array of consulting experiences tailored to match their interests and aspirations. Potential clients include:

  • Organizations focused on societal impact, including not-for-profits and Indigenous enterprises.
  • Australian small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that have unique problems and challenges.
  • International organizations running global projects.
  • SMEs that are looking for growth, innovation, and strategic direction and that choose to engage through our Business Development Clinic (BDC).

For the past five years, students who decided to work with SMEs seeking growth have done so through the BDC. During this eight-week for-credit program, students learn to analyze operations, devise strategies, and recommend tactical solutions to various business challenges faced by SMEs. Through the program’s holistic approach, students gain industry experience by applying theory to practice, which progresses their development into agile, strategic thinkers who are ready to operate in the real world.

A Full-Circle Analysis

The BDC’s distinctive methodology begins with a 360-degree review that we call the Business Health Check. Students are not presented with a pre-scoped problem to solve. Instead, each four- or five-person team conducts an in-depth analysis of an SME’s operational, financial, and strategic health. Working directly with business owners and managers, each team identifies growth gaps and other challenges and develops a practical, ready-to-implement roadmap for increasing profit.

Because students begin with a blank canvas and take a full-circle approach, they engage in the entire consulting project, from problem identification to strategy implementation. They form a genuine understanding of the business’s core challenges and opportunities.

The BDC curriculum combines program-tailored content, hands-on project work, independent work, team meetings, and mentoring sessions with experienced entrepreneurs and marketers. The program also involves regular presentations from industry professionals who share their business experience and insights with the students.

In addition, the curriculum is supported by a range of innovative pedagogical tools and methods. One is Team Management Systems’ psychometric profiling tool for personal, team, and leadership development. The tool enhances the group work component of the program by helping students recognize their own preferred work styles as well as the styles of their teammates. It provides students with a practical toolkit for understanding and navigating team dynamics.

Because students in the Business Development Clinic begin with a blank canvas and take a full-circle approach, they engage in the entire consulting project, from problem identification to strategy implementation.

Students also employ the 7 Levers Framework as they work with business owners. This growth development tool was created by one of the authors of this article, Pete Williams, who is a professor of practice at DBS as well as a small-business entrepreneur, advisor, and marketer. Designed specifically for SMEs, the framework outlines a concise and effective method for strategic planning.

The seven levers consist of suspects (anyone who visits a store or website); prospects (people who take some micro-commitment action, such as trying on clothes, getting a quote, or signing up for emails); conversions (prospects who buy something); average item prices and average items per sale (both calculated across a specific period); transactions per customers (the number of times customers make repeat purchases); and profit margin (calculated as a percentage of sales).

As students use such tools and methods in their consulting projects, they develop analytical and problem-solving skills and improve their ability to think strategically and act decisively. Through coaching, students also practice incorporating ethical considerations into their recommendations.

Assessments and Adjustments

The BDC recently added an advanced section aimed at undergraduate and postgraduate students who have considerable work experience and want to change careers or enhance their current knowledge.

In the advanced clinic, students must prospect for and recruit their own SME clients. Some international students have brought in businesses from their home countries, and the participation of these businesses has enriched classes by adding elements of multicultural learning. It also has enabled us to expand the connections we have with international practitioners.

The BDC is offered to students on all of the many DBS campuses located within the state of Victoria, as well as the school’s online campus. This means the program is available to students who don’t live close to a campus or find it difficult to travel because they are employed or have disabilities. For students who need assisted learning support tools, Deakin University provides resources such as learning and language advisors, writing mentors, and 24-hour online study support. The school also provides free assistive technology and academic support as required to individual students.

Once students complete the BDC program, we evaluate them on several measures:

  • Their in-depth project reports, which offer participating SMEs practical strategic planning advice designed to increase profits.
  • Their live pitch presentations to clients.
  • The comments of their supervisors and mentors.
  • The quality of their reflection pieces on the development of their personal skills.

Through these assessments, we see how well students have delivered on the desired Unit Learning Outcomes. We evaluate how well students interpreted the client’s needs, devised strategies for addressing those needs, justified solutions and contingencies, communicated and worked with others in professional settings, and planned for and monitored their learning and skill development.

The Client Connection

Because the program relies on live case studies, the school is continually on the lookout for small-business clients who would like to participate. We maintain an “Expression of Interest from SMEs” form on the university website to invite business owners to join. We also rely on strong word-of-mouth recruitment efforts from staff, students, and past clinic clients.

We find additional clients through people who attend our regularly scheduled webinars and events aimed at local business associations and chambers. Through these activities, we provide educational training on the 7 Levers Framework, demonstrate its impact on SME growth, and explain that students in the BDC will provide free consulting to help business leaders implement it.

Surveys of our participating SMEs show that more than 62 percent of client companies have implemented the strategic recommendations provided by our student consultants.

To ensure that we attract and can support a broad range of businesses, we try to minimize how much time SMEs must spend with the program. Even so, clients must agree to:

  • Attend a pre-set 90-minute session to meet their student consultants.
  • Be available over a four- or five-week period to take mutually beneficial calls and respond to emails from the students.
  • Attend a 30-minute final pitch presentation.

While businesses aren’t required to provide profit-and-loss statements, we let them know that such statements may help student teams provide more detailed and effective briefs.

Measurable Results

Surveys of our participating SMEs show that more than 62 percent of client companies have implemented the strategic recommendations provided by our student consultants. We see this as a testament to the quality of the students’ work and the practical value of the program.

Several former clients have attributed at least some of their ongoing success to the BDC. One of these is Oh Crap, which provides compostable bags for collecting dog waste. The year after the company participated in the program, it made the Fast Starters List put out by the Australian Financial Review.

Another success story comes from a company working in the software-as-a-service industry, which implemented the students’ comprehensive plan to enhance the value of individual customer sales.

A third one involves a project from The Hope Factory, a digital web development agency. The initial Health Check revealed that the client’s wage bill was too high relative to sales. BDC students recommended a multifaceted strategy aimed at increasing sales and enhancing profitability without changing wage costs.

Some BDC clients have been so impressed with the outcome of their participation in the clinic that they have subsequently employed one of their student consultants. It is common for SME clients to give students excellent evaluations and provide five-star feedback to the school.

Leaders of the Future

The Business Development Clinic is a scaffolded and structured component of a broader “work integrated learning” (WIL) suite of programs at DBS. Each WIL program gives students an edge in the employment market by developing their work-ready leadership skills. Students who participate in the BDC will have an advantage in job interviews because they can make statements such as this:

    “I worked on a student consulting team, mentored by an experienced entrepreneur, to assist an SME looking to rapidly build profitability. Using a unique framework, my team utilized primary and secondary data sources to develop and present a strategic plan to drive profit in seven interrelated steps. The plan was implemented by the business, which achieved a significant growth in profit as a result.”

The need for innovative, adaptable, and ethically minded leaders has never been greater than it is now. At DBS, we believe our 360-degree consulting approach will prepare students to be problem-solvers and strategic thinkers capable of leading in a dynamic and uncertain business world.

Christine Contessotto
Associate Professor in Accounting and the Discipline Lead of Work Integrated Learning, Deakin Business School, Deakin University
Pete Williams
Professor of Practice, Deakin Business School, Deakin University
Wade Halvorson
Senior Lecturer in the Work Integrated Learning Team, Deakin Business School, Deakin University
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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