Applied learning in graduate business education

Applied learning in graduate business education

Hector A. Quintanilla

FACULTY, STUDENTS, AND INDUSTRY PROFESSIONALS CAN BENEFIT FROM WORKING ON REAL-WORLD PROJECTS TOGETHER.

In 2000, W. Steve Albrecht and Robert J. Sack surveyed accounting faculty and practitioners to determine what each group believed were the most important forms of learning activities. They found that a majority of faculty members (52.7%) believes that assignments with real companies are a useful learning activity and should be encouraged more (see Table 1 and Table 2 for the results). In fact, in terms of usefulness, field-study projects ranked second only to internships. Yet despite the academic and professional consensus on these projects, only 40.8% of faculty respondents indicated that they use applied-learning activities to complement their classroom instruction.

On the professional side, the Institute of Management Accountants has adopted the banner of “business partner” to emphasize the changing roles of finance and accounting professionals in today’s organizations. (1) This theme is supported by members of the profession and by studies like the 1999 Practice Analysis of Management Accounting, Counting More, Counting Less: Transformations in the Management Accounting Profession, which reported a change in the management accountant’s duties and responsibilities from traditional activities to “business partnering” activities and predicted that this evolution would continue in the future. (2)

The changing role of today’s finance and accounting professionals is echoed in the repeated calls for changes in accounting education. According to Albrecht and Sack, many accounting programs are deficient in several areas, including content, pedagogy, skill development, and technology. (3) These deficiencies can be seen at the professional level, where some accounting and finance professionals find it difficult to make the transition to the business partner role. (4)

By working together, IMA members in industry and educators can recruit applied learning projects that will benefit the educators, their students, IMA, and its professional members. IMA already collaborates with and supports educators via student chapters, faculty enhancement programs, case-writing competitions, case-solving competitions, and scholarships. Working together to develop and/or recruit projects for educational use, therefore, is simply an extension of the current partnership.

EXPERIENCES IN APPLIED LEARNING

In 1996, Texas Wesleyan University began its MBA program in Fort Worth, Texas. To help distinguish its graduate program from those offered at other local universities, Texas Wesleyan chose to develop an “applied emphasis” curriculum, which required students to complete at least 36 hours of course work successfully in order to graduate. Included in that program were four core courses that required students to complete an applied project: Accounting Analysis for Decision Making, Marketing Management, Research Methods for Decision Makers, and Strategic Management. A sample list of projects conducted by students for these courses is shown in Table 3.

Incorporating applied projects into the curriculum provided numerous benefits for students, professors, and the participating sponsor organizations. First, applied projects allowed students to experience what we call “just-in-time learning,” giving them an immediate opportunity to apply what they learn in the classroom to real-world situations. Students learn an analytical method or model in lectures “just in time” to apply it to their project, providing immediate reinforcement of classroom subject matter. This contrasts with more traditional approaches where students may not have the opportunity to apply their learning until a later time, often well after graduation.

The applied approach also exposes students to a wide variety of organizations and industries. Many of the projects involved nonprofit, government, and citizen activity groups, which enabled students to develop an understanding of the applicability of business models to a broad spectrum of organizations. This exposure also provided students with the opportunity to give something back to their communities. For many, this became a commitment that extended beyond course requirements.

The community-based projects also had the unexpected “spillover” benefit of generating good publicity for the graduate program. Many of our projects were presented to various community stakeholders, such as city councils and chambers of commerce, and were the subject of several articles and favorable editorials in the local newspapers.

The projects often led to opportunities for the faculty members to collect data for research or provided information for case studies, not to mention the real-world events that were taken back into the classroom for use as examples of the application of course topics. Also, for those who are interested, these projects can lead to consulting opportunities.

The companies or organizations benefited from a rigorous, independent, and objective analysis of a critical problem. In many cases, the sponsoring organization lacked the resources or expertise to conduct the analysis provided by the student groups. By sponsoring a project, it achieved an objective that might otherwise have been out of its reach.

It is readily apparent that these applied projects created a win-win-win situation. Tables 4, 5, and 6 elaborate on the benefits for all stakeholders. Texas Wesleyan University graduate faculty members have continued to utilize applied projects in the MBA curriculum, although the exact courses in which these projects are required has varied since the inception of the MBA program.

PROJECT RECRUITMENT AND PROFESSIONAL INVOLVEMENT

To incorporate projects into the learning experience, it was imperative that the pipeline of project requests remained full. The MBA director and faculty members responsible for supervising the applied projects were responsible for recruiting the projects. Students, program alumni, administrative personnel, and community organizations (such as chambers of commerce) also were involved. Though projects came from a variety of organizations, we found that most places willing to sponsor graduate projects fell into four categories: public charitable organizations, government agencies, private for-profit entities, and public for-profit entities. Based on our experience, companies and organizations of these types often have project requirements that challenge students to use and refine the various skills they need to become competent business professionals.

Recruiting projects from publicly held companies was usually the greatest challenge. Their main concerns were confidentiality, the quality of student deliverables, and turnaround time. Project recruitment became easier, however, as demands on human capital were exceeded by the number of organizational projects because of the recent low employment rate in the Dallas-Fort Worth area combined with the increasing acceptance of “job hopping.” As companies developed backlogs of exploratory projects, they became more willing to consider using student teams for assignments.

BENEFITS OF AN APPLIED PROJECTS PARTNERSHIP

Successful project recruitment involves finding someone within the sponsoring company to recognize and understand the benefits of using students to carry out projects. Finance and accounting professionals are generally aware of numerous project needs within their organizations as well as the resources available to satisfy those needs. Because some IMA industry members are also active in several professional or community groups, they are frequently sought out for consulting or referral activities by organizations in which they are not employed (such as municipalities or charitable organizations). In addition, IMA industry members often serve on boards of organizations that may have limited resources to accomplish the kind of analysis that a student project team could conduct. Industry members of the IMA, therefore, are uniquely positioned to assist educators in the project recruitment process.

Let’s look at a breakdown of the benefits of a corporate/academic partnership to develop and recruit projects for use in education.

IMA Benefits

1. Increased faculty involvement: Increasing interaction between educators and IMA industry professionals would promote the sharing of information, ideas, concerns, and issues involving the profession. Educators can use these exchanges to better inform students about careers in finance and accounting, the benefits of membership in IMA, and the value of the Certified Management Accountant and Certified in Financial Management certifications.

2. Increased student membership: The IMA must continue to recruit new members in order to sustain size and realize growth. Many IMA programs are oriented specifically to students and reflect a belief that interaction with students is an important part of accomplishing the Institute’s goals. This notion is consistent with the IMA mission statement, which states, in part:

“Ensure that IMA is globally recognized by the financial community as a respected institution influencing the concepts and ethical practices of management accounting and financial management.”

3. Increased visibility of IMA: IMA can increase its visibility in the business community by assisting in the project recruitment process. Press releases announcing the completion of student/organization projects are usually distributed to local newspapers and the business press. Local IMA chapter members could use this publicity to develop opportunities for recruitment and continuing education initiatives in their communities.

Industry Member Benefits

1. Value-added activity: Using students to complete projects adds value to the sponsoring organization. Due to the labor shortage in various markets, some companies cannot afford to hire professionals to complete some internal projects. Students represent a valuable resource for sponsoring organizations to have exploratory or required projects performed without incurring significant additional costs.

2. Access to other resources: Various databases to which a university subscribes are readily accessible by students and faculty. Supervising faculty may also collaborate with other colleagues in the process of conducting projects and thus have access to expertise in areas such as management, marketing, finance, and law. In addition, faculty gain experience from each project in which they are involved, so they have knowledge and a networking base similar to that of consultants to use as resources for future projects.

3. Recruitment: Projects provide industry member professionals the opportunity to work with students who may be good candidates for later employment. In addition, industry member professionals can promote their organization to the instructor, who has direct contact with other university students, alumni, and staff who may be good candidates for employment.

4. Publicity: As with the publicity afforded to the IMA, industry member professionals have the opportunity to promote their organization and their alliances with educators on campus and in the local community.

5. Networking: By participating in educational projects, industry member professionals have another opportunity to meet and work with other professionals and aspiring members of the profession while expanding their networking base.

POTENTIAL PROBLEMS

Now that we have explained the benefits, let’s look at some potential problems. Using applied projects requires careful planning. If you are thinking of incorporating the idea into a classroom environment, challenges to consider include proper screening and management of projects, supervision of students, ensuring adequate communication between parties, confidentiality of proprietary data, liability issues, and possible encroachment by students on professional opportunities.

As projects are being screened for use in the classroom, it is important to develop a realistic assessment of the time commitment and to ensure that the project can be completed within the established time frame of the course. Projects that consume too much student time may not be completed in a timely manner or, if completed, may not demonstrate satisfactory results. Projects that extend beyond the established time frame for the course often cause unforeseen complications (such as students graduating) and can create undo hardships on the parties involved. Therefore, an important part of the screening and monitoring process depends on faculty and project sponsor advanced planning meetings in which project schedules and progress points are developed and agreed upon. These meetings help both parties think about time budgeting and whether the desired deliverables can be generated within the period available.

Supervising student projects entails many different responsibilities. Faculty members must provide clearly defined project goals, time schedules, and expertise. It is also important to acknowledge that students’ activities are often guided by grade determination. Therefore, a well-developed list of grading criteria can help guide the students’ approach to managing the project to completion. For example, students at Texas Wesleyan were frequently required to give progress presentations to the other graduate students in the class. This placed a high amount of visible responsibility on the student groups to demonstrate progress made and gave them an opportunity to solicit recommendations and input. Also, students were usually required to draft a case summarizing the project, which encouraged documentation and accurate reporting of the methodologies used and communications with the project sponsor.

In addition to documenting communications with project sponsors, it is important to define the channels of communication between student, faculty, and project sponsor. In most cases, more than one person will represent the project sponsor, and the proper contact person(s) needs to be identified very early in the project. It is then important to work with the contact to determine what form of communication they prefer (such as e-mail versus fax) and from whom they want communication. The faculty member should insist that all communications be copied to him/her, which provides another way to monitor project progress. Students should also be assigned the “follow-up” responsibility for unanswered correspondence so that extended periods of time do not lapse between communications.

In a limited number of cases, sponsoring organizations requested that faculty and students working on sponsor projects sign nondisclosure agreements (NDA). Although this condition was accepted in some cases, our general recommendation is that such projects should be excluded from use in the classroom. Students working on these projects cannot make presentations, should not draft case summaries, and so forth and therefore cannot share their experiences (legally) with others. Although the notion of working on “secret” projects may sound appealing, we consider the legal exposure and potential claims to far outweigh the benefits.

As part of the recruitment process, faculty may also consider having sponsors sign a waiver of liability agreement relating to the project. For example, faculty who hold public accounting certifications may want to have sponsors acknowledge that the faculty member’s involvement does not constitute an engagement for services. The agreement should also cover other issues such as ownership of any information collected, disclosure, and torts. Frequently, at the end of each semester, Texas Wesleyan’s communication department would issue a news release announcing the completion of projects performed and the sponsoring organization. Similar information was typically included in the fall and spring university alumni magazine. Sponsors should be asked in advance to allow their sponsorship and projects to be acknowledged as part of similar releases.

Finally, the authors have been questioned as to the appropriateness of offering students as resources to organizations for projects that professionals may otherwise be engaged to do. Although we did not gather data to support our conclusion, it is our impression that the projects assigned to students were never considered for outsourcing to professionals. A principal attraction of the sponsored project is that it is completed on a “no-fee” basis. Often this gives the sponsor an opportunity to have studies conducted or information gathered that is of interest to the organization but not cost effective if assigned to a professional. In light of this issue, however, part of the screening process should probably include sponsor input.

Our experience has been that all of these potential difficulties can be addressed adequately and simply become part of the continuing education process for all parties involved. The benefits of applied projects as a learning activity go well beyond the simple enhancement of the learning experience. This activity can have a positive impact on all facets of the accounting and finance world–from its academics to its professionals and even to its organizations–all at once. By getting these groups involved in the same activity, we can all have a hand in educating our future financial professionals.

Table 1: FACULTY RATINGS OF LEARNING ACTIVITIES

Percent

Who

Believe

Percent Percent Not Useful

Who Who Do and Should

Currently Not Not Be

Learning Activity Use Use Used

Assignments with real

companies 40.8 59.2 5.1

Case analysis 69.3 30.7 2.7

Feedback exercises

(quizzes, etc.) 75.6 24.4 4.3

Lecture 90.6 9.4 0.8

Oral presentations 62.4 37.6 4.0

Reading textbooks 84.0 16.0 6.3

Role playing 15.3 84.7 39.3

Team (group) work 74.6 25.4 3.1

Team teaching 11.1 88.9 26.0

Technology assignments 77.0 23.0 2.4

Videos 37.6 62.4 22.5

Writing assignments 78.4 21.6 1.6

Percent Percent Percent

Who Who Who

Believe Believe Believe

Useful Useful Useful and

but Used and Used Should Be

Too About Used

Learning Activity Much Right More

Assignments with real

companies 4.3 37.9 52.7

Case analysis 8.5 51.3 37.5

Feedback exercises

(quizzes, etc.) 10.5 73.5 11.7

Lecture 41.4 56.3 1.5

Oral presentations 8.4 53.3 34.3

Reading textbooks 12.1 73.8 7.8

Role playing 5.2 21.4 34.1

Team (group) work 20.4 48.7 27.8

Team teaching 4.3 21.2 48.5

Technology assignments 5.1 39.5 53.0

Videos 5.4 59.2 12.9

Writing assignments 2.4 50.2 45.8

Source: Albrecht and Sack (2000)

Table 2: FACULTY AND PRACTITIONER RATINGS OF LEARNING ACTIVITIES

Number of

Faculty Average

Allocating Points

Points to Allocated by

Learning Activity This Activity Faculty

34-month internships with companies 267 9.29

Field-study projects with real companies 229 4.54

Service learning assignments 196 3.53

Shadowing professionals 154 2.63

Foreign business trips 138 2.70

Online (Internet) classes 121 2.47

Number of

Practitioners Average

Allocating Points

Points to Allocated by

Learning Activity This Activity Practitioners

34-month internships with companies 465 8.63

Field-study projects with real companies 384 4.42

Service learning assignments 356 4.26

Shadowing professionals 341 3.33

Foreign business trips 246 1.77

Online (Internet) classes 283 2.33

Source: Albrecht and Sack (2000)

Table 3: SPONSOR PROJECTS

* John Peter Smith Hospital, Physician Group Employee

Attitude and Well-Being Survey, Spring 2000

* South East Fort Worth Strategic Benchmark Study,

Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce, Fort Worth Metropolitan

Black Chamber of Commerce, Spring 1999

* Fort Worth Stockyards Benchmark Study, Fort Worth

Chamber of Commerce, Spring 1999

* Downtown Arlington Benchmark Study, Arlington

Chamber of Commerce, Spring 1999

* Business Outlook Survey, Fort Worth Hispanic

Chamber of Commerce, Fall 1999

* Economic Impact Analysis of the Fort Worth Business

Assistance Center, Fall 1999

* Operational Effectiveness Audit, The Red Cross,

Fall 1999

* Arlington Municipal Court Customer Satisfaction

Survey, Fall 1999

* Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) Employee Satisfaction

Survey, DART Human Resources Department,

Spring 1998

* Dallas County Mental Health and Mental Retardation

Employee Satisfaction Survey, DCMHMR Human

Resources Department, Spring 1998

* Customer Satisfaction Survey, Cumby Financial Services,

Spring 1998

* Customer Satisfaction Survey, Texas Motors Ford,

Spring 1998

* Health Services Department Survey of Pet Adopters

and Veterinarians, City of Arlington, Spring 1998

* Reynolds Aluminum, Parts Warehouse Process

Improvement Study, Spring 1998

* Siemens, Best Practice Identification–Purchasing,

Fall 1998

* MCA Events & Promotions, Jewelry import project

(Tech de Monterrey), Summer 2000

* Tarrant County Housing, Inc., Activity-Based

Management pilot study, Spring 1999

Table 4: STUDENT BENEFITS

* Real-world context provided for applying

knowledge gained inside and outside the

classroom

* Skills Development

– Communication and presentation skills

– Interpersonal skills

– Listening skills

– Project management skills

– Data collection skills

– Analytical/problem-solving skills

– Ability to use computerized spreadsheets

* Exposure to current business practices

* Opportunity to work with and meet professionals,

business leaders, and potential

employers

* Students work closer with classmates and

the professors

* Potential resume items generated by involvement

on projects

Table 5: FACULTY BENEFITS

* Exposure to current business practices

* Networking opportunities with business and

community leaders

* Community outreach opportunities

* Research and publication ideas

* Closer ties with students and alumni

* Grant writing opportunities

* Consulting opportunities

* Program and individual publicity

Table 6: SPONSOR BENEFITS

* No-cost assistance in areas where resources

are insufficient or unavailable

* Access to potential future employees

* Community outreach

* Networking opportunities

* Educational support

* Access to no-cost resources (library database,

computer labs, facilities)

(1) Rick Swanson, “Your Business Partner,” Strategic Finance, April 1999, p. 6.

(2) K. Russell, G. Siegel, and C. S. Kulesza, “Counting More, Counting Less,” Strategic Finance, September 1999, p. 39.

(3) W. Steve Albrecht and Robert J. Sack, “Accounting Education: Charting a Course Through a Perilous Future,” Accounting Education Series, vol. 16, American Accounting Association, Sarasota, Fla., 2000.

(4) J. Sheumann, “Why Isn’t the Controller Having More Impact?” Strategic Finance, April 1999, p. 33.

Hector A. Quintanilla, Ph.D., CPA, is associate professor of accounting at Texas Wesleyan University. He can be contacted at (817) 531-4295 or quintanillah@txwes.edu.

J. Lee Whittington, Ph.D., is assistant professor of management in the Graduate School of Management at the University of Dallas. He can be contacted at (972) 721-5000 or jlwhitt@gsm.udallas.edu.

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