Surprising business solutions develop from Consulting Practices class
Consultation is best served with a full sense of the business that is being advised. Gleaning that real-world perspective of an organization is the basis of Consulting Practices, a class for second-year students in the management consulting specialization in UB’s School of Management MBA program. The only required course of the specialization, the focus is on the nuts and bolts of managing a consulting engagement, the process of organizational change and development, and features a team-based consulting project.
Adjunct instructor Nick Everest, a consultant for a number of multinational firms over a twenty-seven-year period, has been teaching Consulting Practices for the past two spring semesters. And the results have been a learning process not only for the students but for the business community in which they do extensive research.
“The whole idea of the course is that the students develop a practical understanding of the consulting process. They develop the skills necessary to deliver a good project, both at the individual and team levels,” he says. “They get a better understanding of how organizations work because, rather than being a theoretical textbook-led description of organizations, they go into them. They find out the realities of tight schedules, of unexpected things cropping up. And, of course, the other intention is that they use the expertise they developed in other parts of the MBA program.”
The students are divided into an average of nine teams of four members each. The clients that they find in the business community want to realize an opportunity or resolve a problem or issue. The range of consulting projects is wide, from financial performance improvements for Amherst Pepsi Center to the feasibility of a community blood bank for the Western New York Purchasing Alliance.
“At the end of the twelve weeks, they present their findings and recommendations to the client as if they were a professional consulting firm outside of UB,” explains Everest.
The professionalism and thoroughness of their research and findings have been impressing their clients throughout the community—and driving them to implement the students’ recommendations.
Joseph Dispenza, president of the Forest Lawn Group of cemeteries in greater Buffalo, became a big believer in the students’ abilities and fresh insights.
“We have been looking for ways to expand and stay ahead of our very changing population and demographic shift,” he says. “We came to the business master’s program at UB to look at the master’s students who have no clue (nor did we want them to) about what a cemetery’s business model is—particularly a not-for-profit cemetery regulated by the state—and what we can do, should do, or should be looking at based on this ever-changing market.”
Dispenza also asked the student team to look at the industry’s national survey trends to see if the assumptions made in those reports could be paralleled to the existing communities in greater Buffalo.
“The results were outstanding on all levels,” Dispenza reports. “There were some things that did surprise us. One thing we’ve always done is when we track (funeral) arrangements by zip code, we often bunched what we consider distant zip codes. Really, that was anything out of Erie County. We never considered it a significant area to look at. The students brought to our attention that what we called ‘distant’ represented 10 percent of our annual revenues for the past four years. It’s like it’s always been there and I never saw it. Ten percent is significant in my operation. That 10 percent of your market should not be a passive part of your revenue but should be an aggressive part of attracting greater business to your firm. And it was all under our noses. It took a fresh eye to see it.”
The student team dug further into the organization, considering such aspects as the potential of Forest Lawn’s Web site, the tradition and history of the cemetery, and the ease and acceptability of cremation.
“They brought to the table some very interesting initiatives,” Dispenza states. “Right now, out of the four major areas where they directed us, I have firm commitments on implementing three and I’m working on the fourth. We’re putting it into progress.”Dispenza notes that, although he was aware that the students were trying to get a good grade, their professional manner was more characteristic of paid consultants.
Michele Brown, executive director of Compeer of Greater Buffalo, concurs with the evaluation. The plan they developed for her organization, which matches mentors with children, adults, and seniors with emotional difficulties, was comprehensive and on target.
“They looked at recruitment, board development, staff changes, and development,” she says. “They interviewed board members, staff members, and volunteers. They set out to identify the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats of the organization. I thought their findings were excellent—very thorough with great insight into all the different areas of the agency. They made some wonderful suggestions in terms of bringing about change within the agency. They even went so far as to research what opportunities might be out there as it relates to that change. Things that I will be able to—and have already—put into place in our agency.”
There are no better suggestions than those that are subsequently implemented. Consulting Practices means business.