College of Business: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Small Business Consulting Class Offers Real-World Challenges


5/10/2006

For some, consulting might seem like a dream job. You get to travel, meet new people, work on a project for a specific period of time and then move on to the next challenge. Is consulting all that it appears?

In a Nutshell

Six teams of students found out this semester when they enrolled in BA 445 – Small Business Consulting. Taught by Jeff Kurtz, the class is consulting in a nutshell. Students meet with clients, learn about the company’s challenges, research solutions, prepare deliverables, and make a presentation to the client. The students apply current business methods to real problems and learn what it takes to be a business consultant.

As part of the class, students hone their resumes and some apply to be named a team manager. Managers, in turn, select the members of their team and apply for specific client assignments. Under the direction of the manager, and with the guidance of Kurtz, the students meet with their client representatives about the specific business challenge and then research and develop a solution.

Earlier this month, six teams presented their findings to their clients, which included start-up firms at the University’s Research Park, a local family-entertainment agri-business, a regional convenience store, and a marine sales and service center. Their deliverables included market research, website design, spreadsheet tools, and organization charts. Students in this spring's class said they finished BA 445 with a better understanding of what exactly it means to be a consultant.

What It Takes

Consulting isn’t easy, as the students found out. All the student teams had to learn – quickly – how to delve into details while keeping in mind the big picture. In preparing their client presentations, students had to develop language that identified a specific problem but that did not offend their client. How do you say – nicely, diplomatically – that company roles need to be more clearly defined and made more predictable?

One team struggled to understand the science behind their assigned company. HMSI, Hazard Management Systems Inc, a start-up that is developing software for environmental assessments of water, was interested in learning how to market their products to companies and agencies responsible for detecting or monitoring groundwater contamination. The first assignment for the student team members: read about and understand the characteristics of groundwater and surface water. Little in their education and experience prepared them for the complex subject matter. Their lack of expertise in the specialized field hampered their research efforts, something that they acknowledged during the Q&A period following their presentation to the HMSI team. Learning to handle such awkward questions well is yet another skill that consultants hone over their careers.

A management tool – Michael Porter’s five forces analysis of competitive strategy – was employed by the HMSI consulting team. Because the tool served as the framework for their analysis of HMSI’s software competitors, the students needed to explain to their client the value of the tool and how they used it during their research. Distilling information for a client is expertise each student can add to his or her personal skill set.

As with coursework, time limitations are a significant component of any consulting project. Team members conducted interviews, reviewed websites, analyzed P/L statements, and performed a host of time-consuming tasks in order to deliver to their clients focused final reports that addressed the issues the firms presented at the beginning of the semester. Even when they couldn’t do everything they hoped, the students’ efforts were rewarded when clients praised their work and the level of professionalism they demonstrated. “I’m impressed,” said one client. “You did an excellent job.”

Skills, Service, Success

“This class gives students a real taste of what it takes to be a consultant,” says instructor Kurtz, who is constantly on the hunt for new projects. He noted that during the consulting engagement his students become confident that they can add value to any business regardless of the industry. “The projects this semester were diverse and challenging. I’m proud of the quality of the final presentations and how the ideas can be put into action by the clients.”

 

--Ginny Hudak-David

UIUC College of Business