Taking Care of Business

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If every interaction in life is a learning opportunity, then students at the University of West Florida College of Business are getting a head start on real-world management and marketing techniques by interfacing with local businesses in desperate need of their help. It’s called live case studies, and it takes students away from boring textbook anecdotes about problems far-away businesses have faced and places them in the boardrooms of local companies looking to solve problems.

As workplace expectations change and the workforce is increasingly competitive, employers are looking to hire even entry-level applicants who already have some experience. When profit margins are tight and time means money, it is imperative that business students and fresh hires can hit the ground running. Enter the incorporation of real-world experience with classroom duties and credits.

While capstone projects and internships generally look to improve soft skills and provide directed integration of textbook theories with the real world, research has shown that live case studies can actually teach hard skills, such as executive strategy, as well as more interpersonal attributes like communication. This is particularly true with those who do not have a lot of experience in the workplace, such as college students.

These live case study exercises do not replace an internship, however. In fact, the current body of research shows that,when used in tandem, or when immediately following an internship experience, the live case study process can further improve applied project learning outcomes beyond those of either experience alone.

Locally, it all started when student team consulting projects were instituted in two MBA classes when Tim O’Keefe was director the program. The experience resulted in increased application of learning as part of the curriculum and often to published peer-reviewed cases that can be used as learning tools by any program worldwide.

“When I became dean, my goal was to push those experiences down into the undergraduate program,” said O’Keefe. “At first, a few faculty members signed on for the experiment. This past year we had over 25 percent of our full-time faculty incorporating these type of experiential learning opportunities into their classes resulting in over 50 engagements involving more than 250 students. Several students have had three or more of these experiences during their undergraduate studies here and report added confidence in the interview process because they can describe to recruiters specific ways they have applied their learning to actual business problems.”

In fact, students of everything from marketing and social media to management are taking part in the program, which is just about a year old. They have worked with places like Scenic Hills Country Club, Boneheads, ISS Global, McMahon & Hadder and AccountingFly.

“We work with the Florida Small Business Development Center to vet the company, then place students in charge of gathering pertinent information,” said Sherry Hartnett, professor of internet marketing and social media marketing classes. “We put together what we want the students to learn and analyze, and then they make recommendations to tie in with what we’re teaching.”

Recently, Hartnett led groups of students to look at digital marketing initiatives. The students met with the “clients,” compiled information on marketing and website analytics, then suggested changes. Another group looked at a social media platform and website and suggested campaign ideas to the clients.

“Oftentimes, these businesses do not employ marketing professionals; that’s not necessarily their specialty,” said Hartnett. “So when we come in, we’ll notice that a website might have a lot of good content and photos, but the website is not easy to navigate. It might be difficult for users, so students will actually map out a different homepage layout and navigation structure, to make is easier for customers.”

Hartnett finds that the skills necessary to learn from the client, synthesize the real-world information with textbook theory, and present a cohesive campaign suggestion are easily translated to real-world business success.

“They learn skills like how to deal with ambiguity,” said Hartnett. “They learn how to move forward with incomplete information, deal with people’s personalities, and be kind but confident.”

While success of the campaign is often difficult to forecast at the end of the semester, when grades are due, professors grade the students on their application of classroom ideas and how they handled themselves in engaging with the business.

“The business owners may have a unique challenge or simply want a fresh perspective from college students. All people involved gain from the experiences and the Florida SBDC serves as a mediator between the clients and the students,” said Kelly Massey, who teaches for the MBA program. “Students have the chance to be a consultant and log session notes into our client consulting database. Clients are engaged with the university and helping mentor future business owners and leaders.”

Students are not the only ones who benefit, of course. Business leaders report great success with the campaigns and are enthusiastic about giving back to the community in this way.

“Business owners overall are pleased when being paired with student teams for live case projects,” said Massey. “Many Florida SBDC at UWF clients have commented how impressed they are with the College of Business students and the recommendations they provide. Particularly feedback has been on how the students researched a new avenue of the client’s business, sought additional lower-cost marketing options and offered insight into expansion opportunities.”

These positive benefits extend beyond strictly business applications, too. A class on managing front office operations under the hospitality management major have completed front-desk training and developed procedure manuals for local hotels, including the Holiday Inn Resort in Fort Walton Beach and the Hampton Inn & Suites in Navarre. Marketing Essentials students conducted a case study for Okaloosa Gas Company, which included recommendations for service scheduling and delivery, as well as communication.

“At the end of each semester project, the student teams give a presentation to the clients,” said Massey. “The student teams provide research, data and best practices to support their recommendations. Business owners can ask them questions and provide constructive criticism at that time. Every semester at least one client says that they would love to hire all of the students from their project, if they had the budget and availability to do so.”

Word of the live case study has spread as other businesses in the area are chomping at the bit to take part in this mutually beneficial relationship. For students, the experience is a valuable one that provides a rare chance at executive strategy and networking while pursuing an undergraduate or graduate degree. For businesses, a fresh pair of eyes and a young approach to an age-old business might just be the sheen they need to boost those ever-important profits.

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