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Case Study 24: Business Management Capability, Unitec Institute of Technology, Auckland


The learning experience described here was delivered as an elective paper within Unitec’s Master of Business degree that we entitled “Small Business Consultancy”. The primary learning objective was to have students work with a small retail business over a 12 week period to (a) carry out a review of operational management practices in the business; and (b) recommend a series of actions the owner could take to enhance his or her management capability. Five postgraduate students were recruited to work as implants in five separate businesses, and progress was overseen by an advisory board drawn from both industry and academic sources.


Master of business, work-integrated learning, business consultancy, industry engagement, business management capability, retail home furnishings.

Describe, briefly, the activity/initiative/practice

For each of the five student-business interactions, the staff member responsible accompanied the student for an initial two hour scoping interview with the business owner, at which a snapshot of current management capability was obtained through implementation of a structured interview process. This process gathered self assessments of competence in forward planning, financial, staff, and customer management, and the existence or otherwise of an effective succession plan. The student then worked within the assigned business, typically for a full day each two weeks, and sought to validate the owner’s self assessment through participant observation, and through talking with staff, clients, and other key stakeholders. Subject to a fomal confidentiality agreement, each student then reported back regularly to a governance forum of academics and practitioners, and were able to share “war stories” with the other four students enrolled in the programme. At the end of this process, the student was required to deliver a verbal presentation and written consultancy report that presented recommended future directions for the business.

What is the background/context to the activity/initiative/practice?

The initiative stemmed from a casual comment made by the CE of a franchised chain of 80 retail stores in the home furnishings sector, when he said “some of our stores are star performers, and some are very much lame ducks. Trouble is we don’t know what the stars do that the lame ducks don’t”. On that basis, the process described above was suggested to the relevant industry peak body, and funding was obtained to implement this programme on two occasions (a total of ten student-firm interactions).

What made/makes it “Master’s” level?

As a polytechnic/community college/university of technology style of tertiary educator, this institution prides itself on the provision of work-ready graduates that not only know the key components of theory in their discipline, but also have a demonstrable capacity to apply that theory in a real-life commercial environment. And, perhaps to an extent that we didn’t entirely foresee, the relationship between small business and student often developed to the extent that the need for “mastersness” emerged to a sometimes dramatic extent. To illustrate by example, one business owner sat the student down and explained his plans to custom equip a light commercial vehicle as a travelling showroom, estimated capital investment around US$ 60,000. The student was shaken out of his complacency when the business owner asked “what do you advise I should do?”. In another instance, the student was placed in a position of having to tell her husband and wife management team that their business was rapidly heading for disaster, primarily due to the two marital partners’ total failure to communicate as business partners. The first of these challenges requires a significant degree of both theoretical knowledge and business acumen; whilst the second makes some extremely testing demands on a stuident’s interpersonal skills. As such, these were situations where successful resolution required high level competence and capability – in essence, a true demonstration of “mastery” that went well beyond the level that could reasonably be expected from undergraduates. It is not surprising then that students consistently saw this as the most challenging, stimulating, and in some cases life-changing learning activity they experienced during their two years of master study, and the small businesses involved were consistent in their acclaim for a project that significantly “raised the bar” in terms of their overall capability profile.

What challenges were encountered/overcome - in terms of mastersness - and what lessons were learned that would be helpful to others?

The primary challenges were centred around the issue of mutual trust. On the one hand, the typical small business owner was initially sceptical in terms of what they could realistically expect from a person who was “just a student”; while the students themsleves were less than ideally confident in their own “mastersness” at the outset of the engagement. But, in every case, mutual respect, confidence, and trust expanded rapidly over the twelve week period of engagement. By the end of the process, there was no doubt in the minds of either student or business owner that a significant degree of mastersness had been demonstrated.

Where to next - in terms of mastersness – if anywhere?

We have reactivated this programme for the second semester in 2013, though this time we have abandoned the concept of single industry as the unifying factor, to be replaced by attention to a common business challenge that transcends industry sector. We are thus working with a broad spectrum of activity (literally cradle to grave, as one business distributes mother and baby products, whilst another manufactures coffins), using the common thread of enhancing digital marketing capability as the unifying factor. At an early stage, this promises to be even more successful.

There is a bigger picture to all of this though, in that this is more than a simple exercise in offering students something new, different and exciting, but is instead a very early stage indicator of how masters Master’s students will learn in the future. For us, this has not been a fringe element of today’s tertiary education landscape; it is a core element of what masters level education will look like in the future.


Dr Ken Simpson, Faculty of Creative Industries and Business, Unitec Institute of Technology