The MBA Consultancy Project: Where Theory and Practice Meet Head-on |

The MBA Consultancy Project: Where Theory and Practice Meet Head-on

By Karen Turtle

Updated August 23, 2017 Updated August 23, 2017

This article is sponsored by Leeds University Business School. Learn more about the Leeds MBA.

The Master of Business Administration is, by definition, a vocational degree. Just as a medic or engineer requires hands-on experience before graduating, so too does a prospective MBA. The ability to link theory and practice is key and top business schools invest all manner of resources to replicate real-world business so that students receive the guided immersion they need to be management-ready. 

The culmination of many MBA programs is a student consultancy project which enables MBA candidates to apply months of classroom learning to the reality of the boardroom. No longer is problem solving relegated to historical business cases, hypothetical scenarios, or computer simulations – instead students are presented with real organizations seeking fresh ideas and informed input.

Leeds University Business School, based in the north of England, counts all sizes of client as participants in its student consultancy projects, including the National Health Service, Pfizer, Jet2 airways and Tata Motors. Yet, more often than not, the school reveals, it's the smaller organizations, those which may not have the funds or managerial resources, that seek (and reap) the most reward from MBA students' contributions.

'Leading in Practice': Leeds University Business School's round-up module

"The consultancy project is typically seen as one of the best elements of the MBA," says Dr James Roberts, the MBA program manager at Leeds University Business School. For students, the 'Leading in Practice' module is the moment when all the core skills they have learned are put to the test.

The module, devised over 15 years ago, was developed following feedback from industry experts who teach on the MBA and have experience of recruiting MBAs. They found that a small number of the freshly-graduated MBA students they hired lacked the softer skills and hadn't been given the opportunity to really try out what they'd learned at business school. The consultancy project was devised to readdress this balance.

At Leeds University Business School, the consultancy project typically lasts about eight weeks, beginning in March. Consulting teams consist of five or six members. The school ensures that participants on each project represent a mix of functional backgrounds, sector experience, ages and nationalities, to provide a fuller range of perspectives and expertise. Once established, the teams gather to meet with all prospective clients, who present the issues affecting their organization. The student groups then deliberate on which project they think they can deliver best.

Consulting projects keep MBA students on their toes

The sorts of issues students provide consultation on include new market strategies, best practice analysis, benchmarking, diversification assessments and complete strategic reviews.

An example of an organization that recently pitched their case to The Leeds MBA students was the Northern Ballet. The dance company had, like so many businesses across the UK, suffered setbacks post the 2008 global recession, and they were still in recovery. Their initial ask was for students to review the company's digital marketing strategy to increase ticket sales.

The international student consulting team pulled all their resources to review the ballet company's financials, to unpick their Google analytics data, and to brainstorm the best way to take the company forward.

The students put together a full portfolio of solutions. They proposed an optimized tree structure which would help search engines pull Northern Ballet's website information. They also connected the dots on the types of user that logged onto the Northern Ballet's website, many of whom were gardeners. This helped them to devise a more targeted advertising plan. Suggestions were also put forward for a Northern Ballet loyalty scheme and students even devised an app with daily fitness tips from ballet pros with links to ticket sales.

"The team's best idea, I think, was the app," says Laraine Penson, head of communications at the Northern Ballet. "I don't think we will have the app by the end of this year, but by the end of next year - maybe." 

Theory versus reality: Consultancy projects have their hurdles

While the goal might seem clear on most consultancy projects, the reality is that they are rarely plain sailing. "Students need to know how to employ the right techniques and how to put the correct tools into practice," says Dr James Roberts "often the tools and theory do not apply particularly well to the situation they encounter, and they have to think on their feet." 

Obstacles that might arise through the consultancy project include changes in client staffing, insufficient resources, or a lack of clear direction or follow through from the client's side. "This is no rehearsal. What's being developed is something real, the changes being implemented need to make a substantial difference."

Pressure may not just be coming from the client side – the student team must maintain its cohesion too. Working across gender and age gaps, and across nationalities, backgrounds and experience can create its own set of challenges. This is why top business schools encourage diverse teams. MBA students need to understand varying perspectives and should be able to surmount communication difficulties to negotiate effectively.

The fruit of MBA students' labor

The 'Leading in Practice' module at Leeds University Business School is a course many students remember fondly. The consultancy groups, as with the Northern Ballet, have been working in a tight-knit group for two months. They are approaching the end of their degree and this is the final souvenir of their MBA. Many of the theories and tools they've picked up to that point have been put into practice during the project, some successfully, and some perhaps not so much.

Once the consultancy challenge reaches its close, students are able to take stock of what they've achieved for the organization they're working for, the solutions they found, the processes, systems or frameworks they set in place, and they feel accomplished, but also better prepared for their return into the business world. 

This article is sponsored by Leeds University Business School.

This article was originally published in August 2017 .

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