Case teams tackle tough biz issues; Action Learning program offers students real-life consulting projects | Weatherhead

Case teams tackle tough biz issues; Action Learning program offers students real-life consulting projects

Posted 8.30.2004

August 30 – September 5, 2004

When the VA Medical Center was contemplating adding more operating rooms to accommodate surgery needs, management turned to a team of students at Case Western Reserve University to figure out if the expansion was necessary.

The team came back with a better idea: improve scheduling, clean up existing operating rooms more quickly after surgery, and create an automated room-tracking system.

The solution saved the VA time and money, and the students from the Weatherhead School of Management's Action Learning Client Program were on their way to earning their MBAs.

Stories like this are not only common but are increasing as more Cleveland-area businesses learn the value of Case's 7-year-old program. Action Learning functions a lot like a consulting firm, but the services are free. MBA candidates offer in-depth analyses of a problem and make recommendations - all at no cost to the business.

"It's a win-win for everyone," said Tom Peeling, program relations manager. "The students get the opportunity to apply academic material to real-life situations, and the clients get work out of the students."

A team of problem-solvers
The Action Learning program started on a small, one-project basis in the mid-1990s. For five years the program was an elective, but three years ago it became a requirement for the MBA program.

"It's really important for the students to have the opportunity to synthesize their work and make it practical to the real world," said Betty Vandenbosch, the program's lead faculty member and author of "Designing Solutions For Your Business Problems." For 12 weeks, teams of four students are paired with a business to solve a specific issue. Students attend lectures prior to embarking on the projects and meet with faculty coaches throughout the course of the project to review progress. The program concludes with a final report and executive presentation to the clients in early December.

Rosendo Fuquen, manager of Emerging Technology Research at the Timken Co. in Canton, worked with a student team last fall on a logistics and complexity of technology portfolio management project. He said the company was searching for a method for a portfolio management process that would be sustainable and efficient.

Mr. Fuquen said the greatest benefit in working with the students was that the solution to its problem came from working directly with the team.

"From the very beginning, we and the students are in a learning process and a discovery process. With a consultant, we could take a passive mode of waiting for the solution to be formulated to us," he said. "There is a level of curiosity to try to find out what is the solution. We are all in the same learning process.

"There is a very close way of conversing, discussing and analyzing the problem that allows us to be on the same plane. It's very different to be a receiver and somebody else to be handling the situation."

The match game
Ms. Vandenbosch said the Action Learning program tries to assign pairings based on the students' strengths and interests coupled with the companies' needs.

"Some may work on a situation they never anticipated they'd be working on, but they learn a tremendous amount," she said.

Olga Braslavsky of Mayfield Heights graduated from Case with her MBA in 2000. She participated in the Action Learning program when it was an elective course because of the hands-on experience with real projects. Her team took on a project that was passed up by every other team because it wasn't a leadership or organizational behavior issue. It was a banking project for KeyCorp that looked at product models and analyzed efficiency.

Because of that experience, Ms. Braslavsky now works as a deposit accounts product manager for National City Corp. in Cleveland. She said the Action Learning program left her with a new outlook on her future and a tangible portfolio that benefits her even today.

"We had something to show for it, and it was great to present for interviews," she said. "It's one of the classes where I benefited the most."

A 'rejuvenating process'
Last year students worked on 21 projects with large, small, for-profit and nonprofit organizations. Mr. Peeling, who retired from IBM in 2002 after 40 years in sales, said he tries to build relationships with new clients and leave room for returning clients.

"I get phone calls almost every week from someone who's been at a meeting or a party and heard about us and wants to be included," Mr. Peeling said.

Mr. Peeling said students work on an array of issues for clients, from customer relationship management to supply chain problems. While there is no charge to businesses to participate in the program, he said he chooses clients based on their willingness to contribute to the students' education.

"We select clients interested in the project who are willing to spend time to meet with students consistently and be part of the educational process," he said.

Mr. Fuquen added that the level of talent coming out of the country's MBA programs is high, making the interactions with the students a "rejuvenating process" for company managers.

Reprinted with permission of Crain's Cleveland Business by Crain Communications Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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