How can a college student learn the finer points of the information technology consulting profession before actually working as a consultant?
At the School of Information Studies (iSchool), there’s a course for that. It’s “Enterprise IT Consultation” (currently IST 400/600), and it presents students with a full cycle of skill development and experiences with the consulting process and profession.
Because the course presents both broad perspectives and opportunities for hands-on skills development and application, “It’s not only for students who believe they want to be consultants, but for those who aren’t sure if the profession is right for them. It is also very helpful for those students who are more technical and want to broaden their business skills or strengthen some of their interpersonal skills,” Professor Michelle Kaarst-Brown explained.
With 20 years of management and consulting experience in all phases of organizational operations, Dr. Kaarst-Brown draws upon her own experiences, as well as those of an advisory group of consultants from global consulting firm Deloitte. Her connections to consultants at both large and smaller firms, and to IT and business professionals throughout North America, provide students with actual business and operational problems to solve. This includes exposure to challenges that must be managed in consulting settings to provide value to clients.
The Consulting Life
Students learn what it takes to be successful as a business or information technology consultant, according to Dr. Kaarst-Brown. Feedback from prior students who now work with consulting firms such as Deloitte, Anderson, Accenture, E&Y, or work with other companies such as Bank of America, attest to how the course helped not only give students a realistic view of the career, but gave them a head start with consulting skills their managers recognized and praised.
During three distinct phases of the course, students study all aspects of the profession—from initial client exposure to closing out an engagement; logical thinking and analyzing client information; dealing with imperfect information and managing ambiguity; and handling curve balls that inevitably come up in projects. They also learn how to deal with issues that crop up during client interactions, such as the role of verbal and non-verbal communications, gaining client feedback, negotiating, and conflict resolution within teams and with clients. The course debunks the fallacy that consultants walk in as “Subject Matter Experts” (SME’s) with all the information they need to solve client problems. Students learn how to get up to speed on a client industry or specific project, including how to facilitate interviews and collect data at all levels in an organization. They also learn the importance of understanding different stakeholders at a client site, and how to tailor presentations for varied business, technical, executive, and work-group audiences. “This is the safest environment in which to practice and learn. Not everything works out perfectly the first time. Better to make mistakes here, than out in the field!”
Dr. Kaarst-Brown, who began teaching the course in Spring 2014, said she and Dr. Art Thomas (currently Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and previously the program director for the master’s degree programs in Information Management and in Technology and Network Management), initially believed the class would become an elective for senior students once they had completed a number of required courses. However, “We quickly realized that the students most interested in taking this course are the ones who are trying to get ready for their first internships, both with consulting companies and in other environments,” Dr. Kaarst-Brown said. “Many of our students don’t realize that this course now counts toward our management core requirements, as well as toward electives for a number of concentrations, including Project Management. We are working to clarify this, however, demand for the course has been strong, and admission is competitive.”
Three Phases of Learning
Learning takes place in three phases that move from the hypothetical to real-world practice. In the first phase, students follow a consulting case from their textbook, reading about the full consulting process, then debriefing and deconstructing the engagement. That helps them gain insights into a consulting team’s inner workings, client relationships, problem solving and negotiation approaches, and the various consulting-practice functions and process.
Secondly, students work on a simulated case developed in conjunction with the Deloitte advisory group. These simulations provide syntheses of many types of work the firm conducts, and give students a controlled set of facts to practice what they learned from the text analysis. This phase challenges the students to think analytically and often outside their comfort zone, looking at the intersection of strategic and technical problems their fictitious client has, and developing evidence-backed recommendations for potential solutions.
The third experiential component and final consulting case has evolved into a real client engagement, where teams have to negotiate the terms of their contract and fulfill it, all within four to five weeks. Former students unanimously have praised how “our projects matter,” “the client really cares about what we recommend because they have a problem and need help solving it,” and “this is a real consulting engagement, even though it is short. It is not just about project management, but about adding value and advising the client.”
All of the experiential case examples provide students with opportunities to examine and implement best practices, evaluate what competitors are doing, and offer customized consulting advice. These experiences require students to share information among their teams, collaborate across demanding schedules, and deal with group dynamics, while also using some of Deloitte’s internal consulting tools to assess the risk involved in their team decisions. Throughout the process, students receive feedback from peers, instructors, actual clients, and coaching from external consultants. An important part of the course is also when students engage in individual self-reflection about new knowledge, skills, and lessons learned.
A highlight of the course is that students also enjoy face-to-face interactions with Deloitte representatives through in-class discussions and question-answer sessions, attendance at social events, and the coaching mentioned above. Through those experiences, “students come to a much more realistic understanding of what consulting can be like as a career,” Kaarst-Brown said.
The course is now open for the fall semester and will be offered again in Spring 2016. As a blended course, it is available to both iSchool undergraduate and graduate students and to those who have an iSchool dual major with any other school or discipline. That might include computer science, business, supply chain management, accounting, communication, or any other focus, Dr. Kaarst-Brown explained. The only requirement is a 3.0 GPA and that students meet the prerequisites.