Ready to Work

Several schools are integrating skill sets once reserved for MBA students into their undergraduate business courses.
Ready to Work

ADVANCING COMMUNICATION SKILLS

While it’s common for MBA students to work as consultants on realworld projects, it’s rarer to find undergraduate business students in such roles. At Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis, the Management Communication Client Project (MCCP) doesn’t just give undergraduates a chance to consult with actual clients; it also trains them to hone their communication skills.

As part of the MCCP, representatives from local corporate and cultural institutions come to the school during the third week of the semester and deliver presentations to an auditorium full of undergraduate business students. They describe communication issues they’re currently experiencing, whether they’re trying to improve a brand or branch into social media. While all students hear all presentations, each client is assigned to work with one 20-student subsection for the rest of the semester.

Over the next 12 weeks, the students analyze the communication challenges experienced by their particular client. Each subsection is broken into four teams of five students, and each team tries to create the best solution. Students learn a variety of skills, but two are particularly valuable: how to communicate professionally and how to work collaboratively.

DEVELOPING PROFESSIONALISM

After students formally meet their clients, the teams narrow the scope of the issues they’re addressing and determine which factors are most important. They also reflect on interpersonal and professional interactions as they learn to translate classroom lessons into real-world situations.

During the semester, students learn how to hold group meetings with clients, listen closely, and avoid monopolizing conversations—in short, how to communicate professionally.

Midway through the semester, the client for each subsection of students visits his or her assigned class and answers questions about pressing issues. A few weeks later, the class visits the client’s firm to meet key executives and get a peek behind the scenes. During these visits, the students notice elements of the organization’s culture and gain a feel for how the communication issue they’re studying connects to the broader goals of the organization.

As the semester progresses, students consider the differences between communication channels such as emails and phone calls, and they learn how to contact their clients when something unexpected comes up. They discover that busy professionals don’t always respond to queries immediately, so they must pay attention to their clients’ schedules as well as current local business news. Finally, they see how their clients handle themselves in various situations. Throughout the course, students reflect on appropriate, effective, and ethical communication practices.

WORKING IN TEAMS

Toward the end of the semester, student teams present their final analyses to the other students in their subsection. Collaborative teamwork becomes especially important now: While each team presents to the class, only one team from each class delivers a formal presentation to the client at the Showcase Finale Event, and that team must represent the class as a whole.

We frame the situation as a real-world scenario. Once graduates are on the job, they might work diligently on a project for some time, only to learn that a co-worker’s idea has been chosen over theirs. To further the company’s goals, they still need to support their colleague’s work. How will they interact with their fellow employees once the decision is made? How will they behave if their idea is selected?

It helps to have the class re-watch the presentation of the selected team and then provide face-to-face constructive criticism. Students who aren’t on the selected team perform other necessary tasks such as conducting additional research or designing a class logo for the final presentation. This exercise fosters collaboration and holds everyone accountable for the success of the selected team.

In the last week of the semester, students and clients again gather in the auditorium as the selected teams deliver their presentations. During the social hour after the presentations, each client provides feedback to the presenting team and often asks additional questions. Because this evening is the last time the students will interact with their clients as a class, clients pose for pictures with their student teams. The whole evening has a festive air.

DESIGNING WINNING PROJECTS

Other schools that want to incorporate course client projects into their undergraduate courses should keep two things in mind. First, it’s helpful to connect with other centers at the university. For instance, many MCCP students go on to participate in Olin’s Center for Experiential Learning, which also works with corporate and nonprofit clients and forges stronger ties between the university and the community.

Second, a great deal of uncertainty always surrounds these kinds of projects. They require patience, flexibility, and understanding, but they also can offer faculty a welcome departure from their typical teaching schedules.

Course client projects are excellent learning vehicles because they can be tailored to fit any subject. Through these projects, students hone their strengths and acquire new skills, educators and universities deepen their relationships with the community, and corporations and nonprofits gain fresh perspectives on their operations. At Olin we’ve found that these projects provide us with an exciting opportunity to advance our students’ professional communication skills—in just 12 weeks.

Ron King is the director of the Center for Experiential Learning at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, and Elizabeth A. Petre is a post-doctoral lecturer in communication at the school. James T. Petre is an assistant professor of speech communication at McKendree University in Lebanon, Illinois.