Just a page or two into the tidy 38-page document, Chris Mahoney, BSW’98, MSW’99, was already impressed by the calibre of information her management consultants had prepared. “I have seen lots of high-end stuff, and as soon as I read it I thought: ‘This is a product.’ ”
The “product” was written by five MBA students at the University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business who had been paired with Mahoney’s organization, Enviros Wilderness School Association, a Calgary not-for-profit that helps troubled kids and their families.
Each year, students in Peter Sherer’s HROD 723 class work with a local community group that needs help but can’t afford to hire management consultants. Over the years, his students have assisted about 20 organizations around Calgary, in human services, the arts, the environment, recreation and sports.
“Students do everything from building strategic plans to reviewing organizational design, to looking at governance and human resource issues,” says Sherer, an associate professor at Haskayne, who relies on the Calgary Chamber of Voluntary Organizations and the Rozsa Foundation to recruit organizations.
Mahoney, Enviros’s CEO, wanted help preparing for new child welfare rules and funding models. “We were looking at an organizational assessment and how to manage change,” she says. “Our issues were around positioning—what differentiates us from others and how to pull together potentially strategic alliances.”
The students jumped right in. “Most of our team hadn’t been through something like this before,” says Leanne Walper, BComm’08, MBA’11. “We were building on what we learned in textbooks, but how you do it is almost more important than what the information is, because you could have all this stuff to share, but if it doesn’t fit with the client, it means nothing.”
Throughout the project, Sherer provided “sequenced” or “just-in-time” training, helping the students learn material as they needed to know it in the field. “When students can connect formal concepts to a living project that morphs and changes, they attain a richer understanding of the material.”
By the end of their semester, Sherer’s students have had the opportunity to work in groups to identify and analyze a problem and offer business recommendations; help and connect with a local organization; cement theoretical business foundations; work with and get to know a non-profit; and connect with the Calgary business community.
And after numerous meetings with the client and with Sherer, and hundreds of hours of individual and group work, the students delivered their recommendations to Enviros.
“It’s a bit of a foundational guiding document,” says Mahoney, who also earned an MBA from Royal Roads University in 2005. “We probably would have figured some things out on our own, but having a different, more independent perspective helped us to stay away from being biased and really look at our strengths and challenges in terms of managing systemic or external changes.”
Walper says she learned a lot from working with Enviros, but also from working with her other team members. “In the MBA program, we all come with varying work experience. We bring everything to the table and we learn from each other.”
Before presenting to the client, each of the seven student teams vetted their work past a board of professional management consultants. Walper was thrilled when one the consultants said he was so impressed with their work, he’d hire the team tomorrow.