SummaryThe Business Clinic is a business consultancy project in which cross-disciplinary teams of 4/5 students from across the Strathclyde Business School departments (including entrepreneurship, marketing, HRM, Finance, Accounting, etc.) craft detailed, implementable solutions with measurable impact for the client organisation.
Client organisations come from a wide range of industries but they all share similar characteristics in that they are mainly SMEs facing growth or sustainability challenges. Very many of our clients are in the third sector, thus they have a focus on solving social issues as opposed to maximising returns.
In 2014-15, 104 students worked with 23 client organisations coming from the Greater Glasgow area.
The students involved in the project are in their 3rd year of a Business degree, thus they already possess substantial knowledge which can be applied to solve the issues faced by the client organisations. Moreover, Business Clinic students receive training on consultancy tools and business modelling in the form of workshops at the beginning of the project.
By the end of the project, each team of students produced a comprehensive report with a detailed strategy and recommendations for each of the 23 client organisations.
Much of the work also took on a practical element such as attending trade fairs on behalf of the businesses or redesigning websites to make these more effective in promoting the business.
Hunter Centre for Entrepreneurship
Faculty of Business
Dr Lucrezia Casulli
From a pedagogical point of view, the rationale behind the Business Clinic is that business subjects are best learned through practice and reflection on practice. Conceptual, classroom learning is objective and categorised but abstract. Real world business problems are fuzzy and interconnected but tangible. It is unrealistic for students who have only been exposed to the former type of learning to perform excellently in the latter type of environment. The Business Clinic exists to bridge this gap. It throws students in at the deep end in organisational issues the origins of which are often unclear and difficult to diagnose to begin with.
The leading tutor for the Business Clinic, Martin Gannon, conducted systematic data analysis of the 104 reflective learning summaries that the students wrote at the end of the project. Some of the themes in terms of student learning are reported below. Students learned a number of skills that they would not have learned otherwise, making the initiative a real success:
- Value of experiential learning: As a vehicle for learning, the practical nature of the BC was considered to be a success by most students: “I have discovered that I find the experiential learning element very effective as a learning technique”. Furthermore, some students suggested that they believed that the BC is unique in allowing them the opportunity to experience this: “I feel it teaches you things about real life businesses that there is no way you would be learning about if you were to do some of the other pathways”.
- Confronting gaps in knowledge: Some students were working outside of their areas of knowledge, yet were expected to deliver. For instance, many Accounting & Finance students were consulting with clients with marketing, market research and/or business promotion issues. Some of these students reflected on the value of the ‘Consultancy Tools Workshop’ and the ‘Marketing for Early Growth Workshop’ as vital resources for filling in gaps in knowledge due to classes they may not have elected to take as part of their degree programme: “I have little to no experience in marketing having not studied that particular subject at any point in my progress through University… However, attending the workshop that covered marketing aspects was an opportunity for me to gain some knowledge on how you would go about analysing the marketing side of a company”
- Coping with uncertainty and the unknown: The vast majority of students stated in their reflections that, despite their initial lack of consulting experience, they began to gain confidence, better understand their role, and develop a variety of skills as the project progressed: “I feel like to begin with we were too shy to put any ideas forward which [the client] had not already expressed an interest in, when really by being so shy we were not offering [the client] much of a consultancy service as we were not providing him with anything he didn’t already have. Once we decided we had to be strong and confident in our suggestions, [the client] was happy to take the risk and research more into new industries, something which he says he would not have done on his own”
- Maintaining Relationships with Clients: Many students suggested that participation in the BC programme has improved their overall communication skills. For some, this harks back to the real-world nature of the project, where they realised that poor communication is likely to have negative effect on the relationship with the client organisation: “I feel personally, that communication has not always been a strong point for me and I am often slow to maintain contact. However, when faced with a situation in which so many parties are dependent on this, I feel I have improved vastly over the course of the two semesters. I feel that perhaps this is because the situation in the Business Clinic is much more ‘real life’ than a situation in a University context”. Most students were aware of the importance of maintaining communication with client organisations, and were able to understand this from the client’s perspective: “There is a real client and a real business which will be forced to make decisions based on your research. If we had not presented anything of value to them it would have resulted in a negative financial cost to the centre as they would not have been able to justify the time that they had devoted to spending with us”
The benefits of the initiative were not only for the students but for all stakeholders. Thus, it is worth mentioning those.
Feedback from the businesses was positive with the following comments received:
- ‘The group were presented with a difficult challenge with many areas (of the organisation) requiring to be reviewed. They were very efficient in proposing what they could achieve and the areas with maximum impact on charities’.
- ‘The group used their skill set very well when dividing up the tasks – the competitor analysis was great’.
- ‘Thank you all again for a fantastic presentation on Tuesday. I thought you did brilliantly and put together a very sophisticated summary and strategy for Glimpse moving onwards and upwards! The slides looked great. Your points were all very clear, relevant and focused. The feeling of real progress and value added to Glimpse was palpable. It was a great pleasure working with you all over recent months and I wish you the very best success in your future careers. I have no doubt you will do well.’
By assisting these micro businesses in Glasgow, our students will have helped the organisations benefit from sustained growth, leading to wider benefits for the economy as a whole.
Our students accepted the challenges from the businesses with panache, working well with the representatives of the businesses resulting in a successful and meaningful relationship for all involved. Some students were offered positions in the organisations they conducted consultancy for.
The University benefitted as well. The professional manner of the students represented the Business School in a positive light, helping enhance our reputation within the wider business community.
The main lesson learned through the business clinic is that students need to be thoroughly prepared for the steep learning curve and for the uncertainty they will face. They have to be made aware that the format of class they will be engaging with is not subject to the same rules, rights and responsibilities as traditionally taught classes. This was perhaps not emphasised strongly enough the first time we run this class. For instance, students kept trying to please / satisfy the lecturer through performing academically rigorous work that lacked practical relevance. Also, students were uncomfortable with the changing circumstances of their client organisations. Real world problems are dynamic, and not static as the case studies presented in the classroom. Finally and more generally, students struggled with the uncertainty and fuzziness surrounding the daily life of businesses. It wasn’t easy for them to analyse and disentangle issues related to different disciplinary areas, particularly when they were given different interpretations of events from different staff members in the client organisation.
We faced a number of challenges in implementing this initiative. Firstly, we had to obtain access to client organisations before the project has established any legitimacy or track record. Once this hurdle was overcome, all other challenges stemmed from the scale of the project. Hence, those will be discussed in the section below.
Given the number of students and organisations involved, managing the projects was non-trivial. The project required a considerable administrative effort in terms of arranging workshops and meetings. This involved such things as getting nearly 130 individuals in the same room at the same time for the launch event when they either had clashing academic timetables (for the students) or full time, struggling businesses to run.
Suggestions for Transferability
I believe this initiative can be transferred to other teaching and learning contexts. The Business Clinic itself is already modelled on the Law Clinic of the University of Strathclyde. This initiative can be transferred across any discipline where the practice is key to the development of expertise in the learner as opposed to her developing conceptual knowledge. Key in the transferability is the consideration of the impact that the project may have on the third party that is involved as beneficiary of the students’ practice. In this respect, lecturers should consider the following:
- What duties and responsibilities can learning individuals be assigned (i.e. not yet qualified professionals)?
- Is an academic supervisor necessary and, if so, should this person hold overall responsibility over the delivery of the project to the third party?
What could go wrong and what contingency measures can be put in place?