The Importance of Real-World Consulting Experience for Online MBA Students

Corporate consulting projects have lately received a surge in interest among MBA students. New data shows that business schools now offer their online MBA students opportunities to advise corporate consulting clients, just like they’ve offered faculty-supervised consulting opportunities to their on-campus students for decades. In fact, consulting projects are by now established features of many of the best online MBA programs as well.

“Experiential learning” has been a prominent feature of graduate management education for most of the past decade, pioneered by initiatives like the Harvard Business School’s eight-year-old FIELD program for first-year students.

At the business school accreditation board AACSB International, Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer Dan LeClair has noticed a larger trend, as business schools who partner with corporate clients are delivering students more immersive, collaborative learning experiences. The surge in consulting projects is but one manifestation of this larger trend.

Now, new data from a recent Poets and Quants study disclosed the extent to which the best online programs offer such consulting projects. Poets’ 2018 data revealed that eight of the top nine online MBA programs, or 88 percent, now offer consulting projects to students. And it’s not difficult to understand why programs like these are scrambling to add consulting projects to their curricula.

As the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School points out, consulting projects help MBA job candidates “showcase” their capabilities to potential corporate employers. These projects also enable hiring managers to get to know potential recruits by working together with them on meaningful and, in some cases, mission-critical assignments. In this way, job candidates can bypass corporate recruiters and college relations departments within human resources divisions by building their own working relationships directly with line managers who may hire them after graduation.

What’s more, such projects empower students with tremendous networking advantages within organizations that are likely employers. Some business journalists have asserted that students’ involvement with corporate managers during business school is highly significant. One reason is that the professional network students build during the course of an MBA program is a proxy indicator of the overall quality of their graduate management education.

Consulting projects also deliver enhanced pedagogical experiences that engage students by complementing their classroom interactions. They afford the opportunity for students to apply their learning in authentic business contexts. Additionally, they accelerate learning, bringing business school courses to life and bridging gaps between theory and practice.

Such projects also teach the integration of essential analytical frameworks typically presented in separate courses—a skill frequently required in business centers like Silicon Valley. One integration example involves the classic case where founders of a cloud software startup need to estimate market size and demand before assessing strategic options for how their firm might optimize new product launches. Then entrepreneurs must forecast the valuation venture capitalists would assign the new company prior to an initial public offering. In this way, founders need to integrate analytical techniques taught separately in marketing, strategy, finance and entrepreneurship courses.

Corporate consulting projects are team efforts, so students develop collaboration, teamwork, and leadership skills. Students also have the opportunity to build thought leadership skills—very different kinds of skills than those typically associated with leadership. MBA student consulting projects that require such analytical integration and skill development also tend to expose students to the latest research, which is highly valued by potential employers.

Consulting projects in online MBA programs also help students develop their virtual communication skills, which are rapidly gaining significance because online collaboration through virtual teams amounts to the future of business. As we pointed out in BSchools’ Part-Time MBA Program guide, according to Northeastern University, multimedia tools and interactive classrooms provide MBA students the opportunities to hone their virtual communication capabilities, boost knowledge retention, and engage in enhanced class discussions through online forums.

In 2014, attorney Ana-Laura Diaz—one of the inaugural 18 students to enroll in the University of North Carolina’s MBA@UNC online degree programtold Poets and Quants:

I didn’t have a problem making connections online. With Facebook and text messaging being the new norm, people are used to having their best friend live states away and only seeing them twice a year. . . Plus, you’re learning how to interact professionally online, skills people will need more of in the future.

Consulting projects extend these virtual communication skills beyond the classroom to the next level. They give online MBA students opportunities to advise corporate clients virtually, using video technologies like Skype and Apple’s FaceTime along with webinar technologies like Zoom. Such projects can also help develop students’ awareness of global business approaches because clients who are online might have offices in any nation in the world.

And, of course, consulting projects are great ways for students to associate themselves with blue-chip brands by adding relevant experience and results to their resumes and LinkedIn profiles.

Benefits of MBA Students for Corporate Clients

Savvy MBA students understand that potential employers recognize the high value of these consulting projects. A clear benefit to corporate clients is that graduate student labor is cheap compared to hiring an experienced team of management consultants from MBB—McKinsey & Company, Bain & Company or the Boston Consulting Group.

Clients receive astute business analyses from the brightest students combined with actionable insights based on the latest research—and all for a fraction of the cost of comparable consulting firm services, like the $20,000 to $35,000 charged by Kenan-Flagler. For many engagements—especially those that require the kinds of creativity or working knowledge of cutting-edge online markets at which younger folks excel—a team of MBA student consultants supervised by faculty who ensure best practices delivers tremendous returns on client investments.

To be sure, many of these corporate clients hire students as consultants partially for publicity—to help build their company’s brand before the school’s potential recruits. But more significantly, students realize that through such engagements these clients also attempt to identify high-potential, talented recruits within practical working environments. Some managers who hire MBAs recognize that interviewing isn’t always the best way to identify talent among recruits and seek a closer review of candidates potential. And they might find this insight into which candidates are best qualified for particular openings demonstrated through consulting project performance.

Consulting Projects at Three Top Online MBA Programs

Now, here’s a rundown on student consulting programs available to online MBA students at three top business schools: the University of North Carolina, the University of Michigan, and Duke University.

Consulting Projects at the University of North Carolina

The University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School is one of the world leaders in corporate consulting projects for online students. UNC’s STAR program—an acronym for Student Teams Achieving Results—provides an action-based learning initiative for MBA students in the business school’s on-campus and MBA@UNC online programs.

Consulting projects focus on large firms who recruit and employ UNC’s students. In the past, those clients have included Amazon, Proctor and Gamble, the Coca Cola Company, Eli Lily and Company, Royal Caribbean International, RedHat Software, Lenovo and ESPN. As this YouTube video depicts, one of STAR’s recent client companies is known to millions of fans around the world. That’s the privately-held, Florida-based firm known as NASCAR—the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, which sanctions more than 1,500 races at over 100 tracks in 48 U.S. states and Canada, Mexico, Europe, Japan and Australia.

During engagements, consulting faculty with experience at major consulting firms and Fortune 500 companies guide student project teams that analyze business challenges for corporate clients. The STAR initiative’s teams—typically comprising half a dozen students led by a student project leader—interact with client corporation executives to build actionable, comprehensive strategies to strengthen competitiveness.

Consulting Projects at the University of Michigan

One of the more exciting developments in graduate management education took place during September 2019 when the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business made history as the first top-ten ranked business school to introduce an online MBA program. Michigan occupies the tenth slot in the 2019 U.S. News & World Report full-time MBA program ranking, tied with Duke University—another online program that offers consulting projects, which we discuss below.

And for the past 25 years, Ross has required of all students an immersive “action-based” seven-week team consulting project the school calls a Multidisciplinary Action Project, or MAP. “Students expand their skills and develop their leadership abilities; sponsors get usable recommendations from top minds,” according to the school’s website.

MAP will be just as much of a signature feature of the online curriculum as any other MBA program at the University of Michigan. Dean Scott DeRue told Poets & Quants:

We have a deep commitment to action-based learning and MAP is one example of that in the online program. Students will work in small teams with faculty in organizations from around the globe just like professionals have to do today virtually. That is the world of work today.

Last year 400 of the school’s full-time students advised corporate clients in more than 20 nations. For example, a six-member MAP team in London conducted research on customers for Expedia’s Dallas-based accommodations subsidiary to help the firm better understand international customers. The client was’s senior director of brand marketing, Mike Wolfe, who also earned an MBA from Ross.

“It’s a recruiting opportunity; a chance to find rising stars,” said the director of the MAP program, associate professor Anocha Aribarg. “Our sponsors tell us they have implemented our students’ recommendations, which can be valuable and have a lasting impact on a company.”

Consulting Projects at Duke University

An additional reason why Duke University’s Global Executive MBA program may amount to the finest blended, hybrid online EMBA program available involves the Fuqua School of Business Fuqua Client Consulting Practicum, or FCCP. This is an action learning initiative similar to the University of Michigan’s MAP program that provides opportunities for student teams to work on consulting projects, and only one of several experiential learning opportunities that Fuqua provides.

One of the FCCP’s directors, associate professor Pranab Majumder, said, “Project management and teamworking skills are both promoted through experiential learning projects.” He points out that action learning initiatives like the FCCP help develop the kinds of soft skills that are so prized by today’s employers.

Douglas Mark
Douglas Mark

While a partner in a San Francisco marketing and design firm, for over 20 years Douglas Mark wrote online and print content for the world’s biggest brands, including United Airlines, Union Bank, Ziff Davis, Sebastiani, and AT&T. Since his first magazine article appeared in MacUser in 1995, he’s also written on finance and graduate business education in addition to mobile online devices, apps, and technology. Doug graduated in the top 1 percent of his class with a business administration degree from the University of Illinois and studied computer science at Stanford University.

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