Students get hands-on experience during spring project

When Management Professor Iain Clelland sent his students out to work with a real-life client on a complex event project this spring, they quickly realized plans can often go awry and fast thinking is necessary for keeping a client happy.

The 34 students enrolled in Clelland’s project event management course embarked on a semester-long project designed to help a rapidly expanding local winery find candidates to serve as a festival manager for its vineyard. The students’ role was to plan, promote and organize an event that would attract job applicants and subsequently put them through a series of well-designed tasks aimed at testing their skills for the position, much like "The Apprentice" TV show.

"It tests the applicants' skills," Clelland said. "Those tests let you know if the applicants have skills necessary for the position."

The class project began with students planning the event and promoting the position to the public. The students, all seniors, were divided into groups, each in charge of various stages of the event, such as budget, location, communications and event activities.

Clelland set up the project with Whitebarrel Winery owner Rik Obiso, who worked with the students as their client. The students planned and promoted the event with Obiso offering guidance and feedback.

As the students learned, working with actual clients can pose a number of challenges.

"After four years, we're pretty much used to working in groups. We’re used to the frustrations of it, but this project was an entire other level of complexity," said Ross Taylor, a management major from Mt. Vernon.

One of the first jobs of the project was to advertise the position. Doing so presented a number of challenges, which can crop up when working with a "real client," Clelland said.

"They thought they could come up with any sort of promotional flier, but that was not true," the professor said. "Materials had to be screened first. Did it fit with the branding? That created issues. It delayed things. We saw the sort of misalignment to some degree with purpose of branding, with the purpose of attracting and promoting and hiring for a position. My students found it was more difficult to attract participants."

In addition to attracting applicants, Clelland’s students worked long hours to plan and develop the event, which served as part of the job interview for the applicants. There were debates about whether to hold the event on the Radford University campus or at Whitebarrel. Ultimately, at the urging of the client, the Whitebarrel location won out.

Also, the students were challenged with developing ideas for testing the applicants at the event, activities that would give the people at Whitebarrel a behavioral sample of each job candidate. Those challenges included requiring the applicants to construct a festival booth, pair wines with various food and complete a cognitive complexity test.

"This is like an assessment center activity," Clelland said of the project. "Do you get along well with others? What are your problem-solving skills? What are your team leadership skills?"

"The students excelled at developing those tests," said Clelland, who also serves as chair of the Department of Management in the College of Business and Economics.

One of the many lessons Clelland wanted to teach his students through the project was planning for the unexpected and being flexible with those plans.

“You have to think in advance, as much as possible, about potential risks and your contingency plans for those risks,” Clelland said. “They did think of the weather; they did think of power outages, and they did think of insurance and liability. There’s the balance of staying and executing on a well-thought-out plan, but also having the flexibility to adapt to new circumstances.”

The day before the event began, students ran through a quick rehearsal at the location and discovered some holes in their careful plans, said William Rucker, a management major from Round Hill.

“If you’re going to plan an event like this, I learned you need to have your time allocated and not do things at the last minute,” Rucker said. “We tried to do some things at the last minute, and it didn’t work out. You have to be on the ball and communicate with everyone else.”

Communication was one of the challenges. “You have to stay organized and communicate with the client,” Clelland said. “A client can change their mind, a lot.”

Whitebarrel and Obiso were a perfect client for the students to learn about these challenges and the client-firm relationship because “they wanted the students to understand how a business works,” Clelland said. “Rik was very candid and open about what he liked and didn’t. He was open about what Whitebarrel expected and very clear about wanting excellence.”

It wasn’t perfect, but in the end, Clelland’s students had met their clients’ needs. To culminate the project, Whitebarrel held an awards ceremony in late March to formally offer the job to the applicant who, as was determined through the event, best fit Whitebarrel’s needs.

The event was a success and Whitebarrel wants to do it again, and Clelland would like to line up more projects for his students with multiple companies, both mid-size and large, he said.

“I’m and very proud of the way the students put all of this together,” the professor said. “It was a little scary for me as the instructor because you’re working with a natural client, but the students understood that. I was very impressed with all the activities they came up with and the way they listened to the client. It was complex project and they met the challenge very well.”

Jun 20, 2016
Chad Osborne