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Mar 15, 2021

UNCW Professional MBA Learning Alliance Pivots For COVID-19

Sponsored Content provided by Robert Burrus - Dean , Cameron School of Business - UNC-Wilmington

This piece was contributed by Lily Pezzullo-Frank, Coordinator of External Programs and Communications for the Cameron School of Business and program administrator for the Cameron Executive Network.

In 2004, Cameron School of Business at the University of North Carolina Wilmington implemented the Learning Alliance (LA) Program in order to support MBA students in cross-functional decision making in a dynamic real-world environment. The program seeks to expose MBA Student Teams to the realities and complexities of business operations and to provide the Client Firm with MBA Team assistance in developing value-added analyses and decisions relevant to the firm’s industry and business processes.

Over the last 15 years, the program has seen a series of evolutions; the program was originally designed as a lockstep with each cohort taking two 2-hour courses every 8 weeks in a normal semester. Students chose a local business of their choice and developed teams consisting of peers within their cohort. The project was spread out over a year with components of the Environmental Analysis and Growth & Profit projects embedded in relevant courses, e.g. marketing, finance, management, etc.

“Ultimately, we adapted LA due to changes in the program and desire of LA clients wanting results quicker than one year,” said Dr. Vince Howe, who has been a leading figure in overseeing the Learning Alliance since its inception. “The Small Business and Technology Development Center (SBTDC) also became more involved as it became relevant to their state objective of helping businesses grow and create more employment. I was given an SBTDC Grant 18 years ago to develop the program and set up the processes.”

Today, Professional MBA faculty and SBTDC counselors work together to pair PMBA student teams to an SBTDC client seeking strategic guidance for growth and profitability. A specific SBTDC counselor and faculty advisor are then assigned to each MBA team and SBTDC client to provide guidance throughout the process. The LA project begins with Dr. Porter’s class where each team has to prepare an Environmental Analysis of their client, e.g. customer, competitor, industry and macro-environmental trends. Information that any good consultant would need to prepare strategic recommendations.

This year, during the COVID-19 pandemic, UNCW saw the Professional MBA Program, which traditionally meets once per week in the classroom, move completely online to accommodate for state and University mandated health and safety precautions. This ultimately effected the way the cohort interacted with the businesses participating in the Learning Alliance project. Team and client meetings and presentations, which normally would have happened at the client’s business, pivoted to online modalities, namely Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and e-mail. The LA teams rarely had the opportunity to work on client objectives face-to-face, and were creative in developing solutions to maintain the standards, integrity, and expectations of the program despite the obvious challenges. One group found a hybrid solution, meeting once to twice per week for an hour or two at a time on Zoom, while simultaneously working within Microsoft Teams to asynchronously create and share content.
“Across the board some of the best G&P Papers & Presentations I have seen in 16 years of LA G&P papers and presentations,” Howe reported to the Director of the Professional MBA Program. Diane Lantz, Business Counselor for the SBTDC, echoed Howe’s sentiments: “I was really impressed with the quality of the teams this year.”
“The MBA Learning Alliance provides a great opportunity for SBTDC clients to work with a group of professional MBA students and focus on a specific challenge, idea or issue that they don’t have the bandwidth or knowledge to work on without assistance. It provides a valuable experience for both the business and the students to solve a real-time business issue with a fresh perspective,” said Lantz.

Heather McWhorter, SBTDC Regional Director also commended the continued success: “Connecting student learning and success with a mutually beneficial community-based project differentiates ‘good’ academic programs with ‘great’ academic programs. I am proud to be a part of the Learning Alliance to connect small business owners with Professional MBA student teams so they can learn from and help each other. Students, entrepreneurs, and the community benefit. It’s a win-win-win.”

The businesses who participated this summer feel similarly. While the details of the work presented to Carolina Beach Family Dentistry are still currently covered under protections, the client was thrilled with the final presentations delivered by their assigned team: “It was so evident how hard [the team] worked and how [they] poured [their] heart and soul into this project. [Their] professionalism was proven by diligence and attention to detail.” This team ultimately won the bragging rights for the “Most Value Added Award,” bringing a fully supported Growth and Profit presentation, comprised of invaluable insight, strong goals, and supportive metrics for the business to consider.

Students from the program reflected on the program’s objectives, and how it has aided in their application of course material:

“The Learning Alliance gave me a hands-on experience working and consulting with a local nonprofit organization. It also gave me the necessary tools to navigate and work together as a team to achieve our goal in successfully helping our client,” said Tara Webb-Dempsey, PMBA student.
Laura Smith, current PMBA student, added: “The Learning Alliance was helpful by allowing me the experience to work with a local business towards improving their current processes by identifying gaps, developing strategies, and providing an overall consulting approach to help them work towards meeting their growth goals. I learned more about the challenges local businesses face in the Wilmington market, in particular non-profits. By researching different approaches to overcome these challenges, I have some great knowledge to share in my future endeavors.”

“The hands-on, practical experience offered by the Learning Alliance was invaluable. It gave our group the ability to apply the knowledge learned in the classroom into a real-world environment that was beneficial to us and the client. This part of the MBA experience is the one that has left me with the most impactful learnings,” echoed classmate Sean Miers.

Robert T. Burrus, Jr., Ph.D., is the dean of the Cameron School of Business at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, named in June 2015. Burrus joined the UNCW faculty in 1998. Prior to his current position, Burrus was interim dean, associate dean of undergraduate studies and the chair of the department of economics and finance. Burrus earned a Ph.D. and a master’s degree in economics from the University of Virginia and a bachelor’s degree in mathematical economics from Wake Forest University. The Cameron School of Business has approximately 90 full-time faculty members and 30 administrative and staff members. The AACSB-accredited business school currently enrolls approximately 2,600 undergraduate students in three degree programs and 750 graduate students in four degree programs. The school also houses the prestigious Cameron Executive Network, a group of more than 200 retired and practicing executives that provide one-on-one mentoring for Cameron students. To learn more about the Cameron School of Business, please visit Questions and comments can be sent to [email protected].

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