October 1996 Volume 23 Number 5
It all started when my dear friend John Elstrott solicited help for team-teaching a new course called "Management Consulting" for second-year MBAs in spring 1996. A quick SWOT analysis helped me identify my strengths and weaknesses, and the threats and opportunities in undertaking such an initiative. I voiced my concerns, and the little daredevil in me answered.
I am not trained to teach management consulting. Who is? And after all, isn't teaching the best way to learn?
I am not an experienced management consultant. That is for sure. You had only one consulting experience so far. But it has been extremely rewarding. You helped a company solve an immediate problem. You were able to turn it into retainer consulting and go back once a year to facilitate a multiattribute evaluation assessment of their corporate quality. You convinced them to publish the results and submitted a paper to a refereed journal ("Energy Transportation Corporation Measures the Impact of ISO 9002 on Corporate Quality," with second author Peter G. Schaedel, forthcoming in Interfaces). Besides, John will be in the class, too. He has had extensive consulting experience. You can have guest speakers with years of experience, as well.
I am not sure if the time investment involved will harm my research output. I know. You are an academic. You enjoy your research and dissemination of the results of your research. You have done mostly theoretical research which did not necessarily have immediate implications in the classroom or in industry. This was your pre-tenure survival strategy &emdash; a short-term strategy which segregated your research and teaching. You are tenured now. You are eager and ready to integrate it all.
As you can see, I did not really need much convincing. John and I designed the course around readings, class discussions, guest speakers and a consulting project. We had several projects which were requested by different businesses in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, La., and Austin, Texas. The projects ranged from market expansion and location analysis for a financial services business to quality management for a furniture manufacturer and distributor.
Students were presented with the project requests and asked to create teams of 2-3 to work on their choice of projects. We facilitated this selection process such that only one team worked on a particular project. Either John or I attended the very first meeting of the student consulting team and the client. After that they were on their own. They arranged for the meetings with the clients as needed. Only when sending material in print did the students need our approval.
Throughout the class we had six guest speakers who had been working as management consultants for several years &emdash; some independently, some as part of major consulting firms. They were excellent in communicating both the difficulties and the rewards associated with management consulting. The realities of working as a solo consultant are rather different from working for a big management consulting firm.
Two sources were extremely helpful in identifying the reading material: the Journal of Management Consulting and the "Handbook of Management Consulting Services" by Barcus and Wilkinson. The readings covered three general areas:
1. The Consulting Profession
2. Stages in Consultants
3. Reflections on Consultants
The course grade was based on participation, a take-home exam and a project with weights 0.2, 0.3, and 0.5, respectively. There were no right or wrong answers for the take-home exam. It tested the students' understanding of themselves in terms of how they relate to the readings and discussions in class and how they relate to their clients.
They were also required to make presentations to the class on their projects at different stages. The presentations were informal at the early stages. They simply kept their classmates and the instructors aware of the developments. This gave the class a chance to follow several projects as opposed to only their own. At the final stage of recommendations, the students prepared a report and made an on-site formal presentation to their clients. They later repeated this formal presentation in class and shared not only their findings and recommendations, but also the reactions of their clients to their recommendations with the rest of the class. Such OR/MS related methodologies as decision analysis, forecasting, information systems design, location analysis, productivity measurement, and statistical quality control were relevant in 90 percent of the projects.
John and I played a minimal role in the consulting projects. Unlike a methodology-based class where the teacher is an expert, and supervises the students in application of a particular methodology, the management consulting class involves understanding of the realities of different industries and selection of an appropriate methodology to solve a particular problem on hand. This creates an important barrier for heavy-supervising since the instructor is not necessarily an expert in either the particular industry or the required methodology on hand.
One way to resolve the problem is to only allow projects within the expertise of the instructors. We chose not to take that path for we thought it would be a disservice to our students and the spirit of the course. In the end, being exposed to several industries made the class an invaluable learning experience for not only the students, but also the instructors.
While we answered the questions the students had as best we could, we did not impose our own way of thinking or solving the problems. They were on their own. On the upside, this allowed room for creativity. On the downside, this did not prevent some students from feeling lost. Some students also felt pressured for they thought they needed &emdash; in most cases rightfully &emdash; more time than what they had in one semester to do justice to their projects. Overall, however, we were very happy with the quality of the majority of the projects.
The management consulting class has been rewarding to both John and me. John, the director of the Levy Rosenblum Institute for Entrepreneurship at the Freeman School, is happy that he has identified the need for teaching management consulting and convinced a tenured professor to offer the course. I am happy that I learned a lot throughout the course. The class gave me an opportunity to serve the needs of the students and businesses in a rapidly expanding area. It gave me further credibility in my attempts toward integration of academia and industry. And, it can be a new canvas for readers to add their own colors of applied operations research.
Yasemin Aksoy is an associate professor of operations management in the A.B. Freeman School of Business at Tulane University. She is the director of a virtual Consortium for Supply Chain Management whose primary purpose is to bring together the efforts of industry and the university in search of excellence in supply chains. Supply chain management constitutes an important branch of her general research area which she calls strategic operations alignment.
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