MBA Consulting: A primer on graduate student consulting and how it can benefit your business

By Doreen Shanahan
There is a highly valuable source for business consulting that is tapped by a limited group of "in the know" company executives: MBA consulting programs. In these programs, full and part-time MBA students from nearby universities work with businesses on real issues at little or no cost. In today's tight economy, it is no wonder that MBA consulting programs have gained significant popularity among small and large businesses.
In fact, the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, the governing body of graduate business schools, estimates the number of MBA consulting programs is more than 100 out of roughly 900 U.S. graduate business schools.
Pepperdine University's Graziadio School of Business and Management has offered an MBA consulting program since 2003. The Education to Business (E2B) program brings executives and students together to solve real business issues. Faculty work directly with partner companies to identify strategic problems or opportunities confronting the organization and that can be developed into business school case consulting projects. Pepperdine MBA students have completed more than 150 projects for corporate giants like The Coca-Cola Company, The Walt Disney Company and Cisco Systems as well as countless mid-sized and small businesses across a wide range of industries.
How exactly does Pepperdine's E2B work? In the E2B program, company projects are screened, selected and scoped to align with milestones in a 13-week course. Each company project is then assigned to an individual class, which is broken into competing teams of MBA candidates. In and outside of class, MBAs research, analyze and provide recommendations for a partner company's specific business issue. At the end of the trimester, teams present a comprehensive report-both oral and written-to Partner Company executives.
Issues tackled range from new product development/introduction, product life-cycle management, change management and organizational effectiveness, assessing a firm's financial performance, driving innovation through technology, IT enabling processes and information silos, to business and consumer marketing analysis, branding, forecasting demand and competitive positioning.
The benefit is multi-fold: businesses that don't want-or simply can't afford-to spend the money on highpriced consulting firms can still get professional-grade advice.
Such programs are opening doors to businesses with opportunities and talent that they might not otherwise be able to access. MBA consulting programs offer bright minds, fresh insights and solutions - with little to lose and tangible results to gain.
What types of business challenges are appropriate for an MBA consulting program? E2B projects have touched virtually every industry, from small automotive operations to Fortune 500 companies, pharmaceuticals and technology firms. Some examples:
Linksys Division of Cisco Systems
Students recently completed a project with the Linksys Division of Cisco Systems on the launch of a new consumer technology product. Students analyzed the consumer market (demographics, psychographics, behaviors, needs) and the competitive landscape to define the best positioning for the product, followed by development of marketing mix recommendations.
Shelly Automotive Group-Spectrum Collision Division
For Los Angeles-based Shelly Automotive Group, Spectrum Collision Division, students analyzed the business and its performance in all discipline areas. The comprehensive approach identified opportunities for improvement and offered concrete actions that successfully impacted the business' bottom line.
Coca-Cola Company
For the Venturing and Emerging Brands Division of The Coca-Cola Company, students researched new and emerging beverage brands, identifying potential acquisitions, and also developed a business case to support recommendations based on company criteria.
Instant Software, Inc.
In a case for Instant Software, Inc. that had almost immediate positive results, students developed a process to increase and accelerate the company's innovation pipeline, ultimately bringing the most profitable product concepts, enhancements and improvements to market in less than eight weeks.
Pepperdine Graziadio students have also worked with Microfabrica, Inc. on marketing plans for commercializing a patented new drug delivery system; and Security Base, in which students defined multifunctional recommendations for scaling the business.
However, it is important to note that a student consulting service - or any consulting service for that matter - may not be appropriate for all businesses. A business that participates in such a program has to be facing an appropriate business opportunity, challenge or problem that is ready for high-level analysis. However, once a business decides to seek solutions, an MBA consulting program may be the educated choice.
Is an MBA student-consulting program right for your business? We've identified a checklist of essential questions and requirements when seeking out an MBA program to work on a business project for your organization (see sidebar).
A. Program Structure
  1. How is the project positioned within the curriculum? For example, is it embedded in a class or part of a stand-alone class?
  2. How many students will be assigned to the project? Is it an entire class in a case competition format, a team of students, an individual student, students from varying backgrounds or experience or students from similar backgrounds and experience?
  3. How are students assigned to the project? Through class registration, company selection or student application?
For Pepperdine's E2B, the program structure is embedded both in a course and as a stand-alone class, both of which require registration, with the entire class being assigned to a project. Students from varying backgrounds and experience then form four to five teams to work on the project
B. Project Scope
  1. What types of projects does the MBA consulting program accept? These may range from discipline specific – marketing, information systems, finance, etc. - to multi-discipline.
Pepperdine's Graziadio School currently works with both discipline-specific and multi-discipline projects.
C. Project Duration
  1. What is the length of the engagement that the MBA program offers? Does it fulfill your requirements? Most programs typically range from seven to 20 weeks.
D. Participation Requirements
  1. What are the specific participation requirements?
  2. Is there a required size of the prospective company, which can range from start-ups to small businesses, to mid-to-large sized companies?
  3. Are there requirements for only certain industries or geographical locations?
  4. What is the time commitment in the classroom, at the company site and with students?
E. Project Development / Scoping and Defined Outcomes
  1. Who will be working with the company executives to define and develop the project objectives, requirements and desired outcomes? For some programs, it may be the faculty, for others, it is the students.
At Pepperdine's Graziadio School, the faculty will determine the scope of work and defined outcomes in advance of the project start
F. Confidentiality and Rights to Work
  1. Does the program guard your investment? Find out how company-provided information is protected.
  2. What type of work is produced, such as ideas, discoveries or improvements?
  3. Are the rights to the work exclusive to the company or is it in joint ownership?
Pepperdine's Graziadio School program includes a Restricted Use Agreement "works made for hire" provision, whereby work produced vest exclusively to the company.
G. Fees or Contribution requirements
  1. Is the program you are considering within your price range? Fees for MBA student consulting programs can range from free to upwards of $25,000. Some programs, including Pepperdine, may solicit contributions rather than fees to support the program, which may be tax deductable as donations.
If you would like more information on the Pepperdine University Graziadio School of Business and Management E2B program, please visit: http://bschool.pepperdine.edu/programs/e2b/ or contact the Program Director at doreen.shanahan@ pepperdine.edu.

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