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More Than a Virtual Solution: Students and clients link up at Web portal to solve real business problems


What if there was one place online where Austin-area businesses of all stripes and sizes could converge to get help from the brightest young business minds in the country? And what if this streamlined, interactive, user-friendly site could help those bright young business minds possibly get valuable internships and great jobs after graduation from one of the premier business schools in the nation?

Thanks to the collaborative efforts of several members of the Department of Management Science and Information Systems (MSIS) at The University of Texas at Austin’s McCombs School of Business, concept and plan are now a reality, and the site exists.

Tim Ruefli

Tim Ruefli

Designed as a kind of virtual congregation area where MSIS students, faculty and businesspersons can interact, the “project portal,” as the area is called, allows companies to submit project proposals for select MSIS classes. Faculty members can review those submissions online, accept proposals which are suitable and then student teams can work with the businesses to complete the projects.

“Business recruiters have in the past had to try to find individual faculty members for information if they wanted students to do a project for them,” says Tim Ruefli, Daniel B. Stuart Centennial Professor in the Application of Computers and director of the Information Management MBA specialization. “It involved a lot of inconvenient paper-shuffling and was hit-and-miss. The project portal is a central location where companies can go and submit ideas, and the faculty members can keep track of the projects online. Information can be tracked, organized and shared.”

Linda Bailey, an MSIS lecturer and one of the architects of the portal, can appreciate the way the site will ease faculty members’ loads—Bailey deals with 15-20 student teams per semester with around 40 students in each class, and she usually teaches two projects-oriented courses per semester. In addition to the potential for paperwork meltdown as she tracks student projects, Bailey, like other instructors, has hundreds of business contacts to nurture and maintain.

The project portal is a central location where companies can go and submit ideas, and the faculty members can keep track of the projects online. Information can be tracked, organized and shared. Tim Ruefli“This portal is a godsend,” says Bailey. “It’s the perfect way for instructors to get organized and share with each other a lot of stuff that’s just more or less been in our heads. It lets the community know what we’re doing, and, when we’ve been up and running awhile and gather all the data, we can probably turn that information into a positive collaboration between UT and the community. Theoretical savings on several projects for a company like Dell that’s benefiting from the free student labor is in the millions. When we present those numbers to businesses, there’s a good chance their support for us will increase.”

The site, which went through beta testing over the summer, will be rolled out for undergraduate MIS 374 and MBA MIS 380N.2 classes this fall. If it passes the rigors of a semester with flying colors, it will be used next spring in additional areas of the McCombs School of Business.

For businesses that are interested in tapping into student talent, both undergraduate and graduate, at the McCombs School, the MSIS students’ work has been a phenomenal bargain for corporate recruiters.

Jose Chacon, who is with Austin-area semiconductor company Intrinsity, Inc., has been so pleased with the exceptional quality of the student efforts that he has engaged MSIS student teams for two projects at Motorola, his former workplace, as well as at Intrinsity.

“The students are amazingly professional,” says Chacon. “At Intrinsity we had them set up a relational database, and they worked with our human resources staff to get that just right. We were having trouble dealing with resumes that were e-mailed to us, and the students developed a database for us as well as a Web site where job candidates could provide information. I’ve always been extremely impressed with the caliber of UT business students’ work, and they saved us about $5-10,000 on this one project”

When submitting proposals, businesses like Motorola and Dell, as well as not-for-profit organizations such as the Breast Cancer Resource Center of Austin, can choose from several types of student projects, including IT systems development, custom system development, research of software, enhancement projects, cost/benefit analysis and strategic analysis of markets.

Elota Patton

Elota Patton

Students, working in teams of four or five, are able to take the technical skills that they have learned in previous classes and test drive them in a “real world” business environment, with real deadlines and challenges.

Some students, like 22 year-old entrepreneur Erik McMillan, who was in an MIS 374 class last spring, have parlayed their student projects into big business outside school environs. McMillan created The Silent Timer™, a tool that can be used when taking standardized tests such as the SAT and GRE, and took advantage of the MSIS class to flesh out the database needs of his newly formed company. The Silent Timer™ has attracted investors’ dollars as well as the interest of testing giants like Kaplan and Princeton Review.

“Our first production of timers is ready to go and should be on the market by October,” says McMillan. “We’re getting calls from investors. Schools and students are so excited about this product. With around 1.4 million students taking the SAT every year and hundreds of thousands taking the LSAT and MCAT, this timer should be a very profitable venture. Classes like MIS 374 helped me pull this all together—after writing a business plan for my company and taking 374, I feel like I’ve gotten a mini-MBA.”

For the very reason that student projects can also translate into sizable assets outside class and during job searches, the McCombs School’s Ford Career Center can be included in the diverse collection of parties who are happy to welcome the newly created project portal.

“When students have completed a project for a company, the company will fill out an online evaluation of the student team’s work,” says Sharon Lutz, director of career services at the Ford Career Center, “Students can then link from their online resumes to the evaluation. A lot of graduate students are returning to school for a career change rather than to advance in their present career, and they need tangible evidence of their mastery of new skills—success with these projects offers that and helps them get good internships as well as jobs.”

People in other colleges and schools on campus can implement this in a snap. Lynn HartleyAs Lutz points out, the portal is yet another way to attract employers to the McCombs School and to build on the positive relationships that have been established with numerous corporate recruiters.

“It’s really interesting how much companies seem to like working with UT business students,” says Kent Hemingson, Director of the Quality Management Consortium in the Department of Management and an instructor in a project-intensive course. “They’re good corporate citizens and feel a lot of corporate satisfaction in helping the school and the students.”

The project portal is only a small indication of how adept the Department of MSIS is at keeping alive the connections between MSIS “stakeholders,” from alumni to instructors, students and businesses.

Situated on a larger site called the MIS Bridge, the project portal is one of many virtual doorways that may be accessed by someone who is interested in the department. As of this fall, all MSIS classes will begin to link to the MIS Bridge site.

“We feel very passionately about keeping the stakeholders in MSIS engaged and connected with the department,” says Elota Patton, an MSIS lecturer who has been an enthusiastic leader in gathering resources for the Web site. “Alumni, for example, are a huge asset for us, and, even though enrollment in the MSIS program went down some after the dot com bust, alumni participation hasn’t decreased a bit. Our alumni are incredible and very interested in things like the student projects—we hope that the MIS Bridge makes everyone associated with our department feel like part of an interactive learning community.”

Lynn Hartley

Lynn Hartley

Although the portal is gaining its sea legs in MSIS, the coding of the program was deliberately made generic enough to allow it to be adapted with great ease to almost any setting where project-tracking is necessary. In the McCombs School, the marketing department may use it as well as the accounting department, and, across campus, the art or advertising or psychology department can employ it with only minor tweaks.

“We knew we wanted it to be very user-friendly,” says Lynn Hartley, project coordinator for the MIS Bridge and McCombs Computer Services database administrator. “People in other colleges and schools on campus can implement this in a snap.”

Thanks to Academic Computing Services (ACS) in the McCombs School, the project portal not only is adaptable but also has a high level of security access. Students as well as instructors must enter their campus electronic identification codes to view areas of the site devoted to coursework. ACS also is responsible for the programming and Web pages for the portal, in addition to the database that is being used.

In the three years since the germ of an idea for an online MSIS community meeting place nestled in the brain of Prabhudev Konana, director of the MSIS undergraduate program, the project has been shaped and refined by a host of architects such as Bailey, Patton and Ruefli. The deceptive simplicity and elegance of its façade belies the significant impact it potentially can have on communications between faculty, students, alumni and the corporate world.

“When it comes to our students going out into the community and working, it’s all good,” says Kent Hemingson. “The students get on-the-job experience and can network and wiggle their foot in the door at businesses and possibly grab a nice job. Companies get the highest caliber business students around, with the freshest, most innovative ideas, to evaluate manufacturing processes or do market analysis for them, for example. If we have an online tool that helps all of these folks communicate and work together, it couldn’t be put to a better use.”

Kay Randall

Photos: Sherre Paris

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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