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Virtual Practicum Proves Valuable in Teaching Skills for the Future

A virtual environment opened up opportunities for MBA students to work with companies across the U.S and apply new skills sets in their semester long projects within the Business Analytics Practicum.

When the world went virtual last year due to the Covid-19 global pandemic, the Business Analytics Practicum didn’t miss a beat.

Donnie Hale, a lecturer in business analytics in the Department of Business Management at Poole College of Management, oversees MBA 559, the Business Analytics Practicum. It’s a purely project-based class that can fulfill one of the requirements for the Business Analytics Certificate.

Professor Donnie Hale
Professor Donnie Hale

“A substantial portion of the world functions virtually anyway,” Hale said. “I was in industry, and the majority of my teams were virtual even before the pandemic.”

During the fall semester, he noted there were even benefits to being virtual.

The beauty of it is, to be effective as a leader and manager, these students need to know how to function in virtual environments.

“There is a certain thought pattern and skill set in being able to be effective in a virtual environment,” he said.

In teams, MBA 559 students partner with an organization and spend the semester solving a particular analytics issue for that organization. Organizations range from non-profits to for-profits, and the industry can vary as well. Past teams have done work for organizations from equipment manufacturers to financial institutions, Hale said. Work also takes place in varying areas across the organizational value chain, from marketing to human resources.

This semester, for example, one team is working with a global manufacturer to help deliver insights relative to marketing, as well as distribution and sales performance. They’re developing visualizations, dashboards and models, that help the company understand the drivers of its business, Hale said. In another case, a team is working with a bank to help them to create predictive models for one of their inventory processes.

Students interacted through Zoom in the fall and spring, rather than face-to-face meetings, he said. And, the type of work they do is electronic, regardless, so the shift to a virtual environment didn’t create any problems in that respect.

Students get to work on the entire lifecycle of an analytics project. From engaging with data, to cleaning that data, understanding the business problem, creating recommendations, and working with the organization to find solutions.

Businesses benefit from the outside perspective on a problem that they’re facing. They also have access to students who will soon be entering the job market, providing them a first look at potential future hires.

Some companies even welcomed the shift to a virtual environment, as it allowed their representatives to participate from anywhere, Hale said. And, he noted that it opened up a broader set of organizations who can now participate, not just in North Carolina but from anywhere in the world.

The student experience

MBA student Ben Lamar

Ben Lamar graduates with his Jenkins MBA this spring. Lamar took the Business Analytics Practicum in Fall 2020, working toward his business analytics certificate.

Lamar spent more than a decade as an electrical engineer in both technical and customer facing roles, and said he saw obtaining an MBA as the next logical step as he moved into more senior leadership positions. He selected NC State not just for its rankings, but also for the diversity in the graduate program and the flexibility the online program allowed as he continued to work while pursuing his MBA.

“I’ve always liked the technical side of my job, and as I’ve evolved in my career, I’ve come to understand how important understanding the business side is,” Lamar said. “By learning and understanding the language of business, I feel like I can have a bigger impact.”

Lamar had the unique perspective as both a student in the practicum in the fall, as well as an employee of the company his team worked with: Littelfuse.

The virtual environment proved beneficial to Lamar as well. As a purely online student, he wouldn’t have participated in the Business Analytics Practicum in pre-pandemic times since some in-person time was also required. But Hale was able to welcome him into the practicum in the fall as all students participated virtually.

Lamar was then able to make the connection between Hale and the leadership at Littelfuse to get the ball rolling on a practicum partnership.

“Donnie was excited, as were my mangers to use this to get some valuable insights,” Lamar said.

In a team of seven students, Lamar and his group had two broad objectives for their project. The first involved pricing strategy and the second involved the organization’s sales dashboard.

Putting NC State’s Think and Do approach to work, the team of students applied what they’d learned in the classroom to the real-world project.

“It’s just incredibly empowering to know that you can take the raw data from your company and apply the statistical skills, the business thinking, and the critical thinking,” Lamar said.

To take the company I work for, to take our data, and to be able to draw some really powerful insights that can drive a lot of business value was so meaningful.

He now has the unique opportunity to put the experience to work in his job. Part of his role involves managing sales representatives for a regional territory.

“My approach now is to use data,” he said. “Now, when we go into meetings with distributors, or sales rep agents, we pull up the dashboard, and we can all see the numbers and the trends.”

“We can ask better directed questions – what’s driving success or what we’re missing.”

As Lamar reflects on the experience, he said that it shows NC State truly puts its Think and Do philosophy into action, something Hale said is a goal with the practicum.

“In classes I teach, I provide data and information that resembles what you’ll see in the real world,” Hale said. “But this is applying it – it’s a level of complexity and challenges that are difficult to reflect in classroom data.”

Students are not just learning the concepts, but then applying them and creating outcomes for the organization.