Bonita Barger and R. Nat Natarajan
In the last 15 years, the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award (MBNQA) has played a significant role in helping U.S. organizations improve their performance and competitiveness. In U.S. business schools, students are taught that it is a model for quality improvements and organizational performance excellence. Many textbooks have used the award criteria and the cases based on the award winning organizations as teaching tools. Business students learn through these texts and case studies how these role model organizations have benefited from the application of the Baldrige criteria. However, typically they do not learn how to apply the Baldrige framework to real organizational contexts for performance improvements.
The MBA curriculum at TTU requires students to take an exit class (MBA 6830, taught by Bonita Barger) called Business Research. The course is designed to enhance business research and reporting skills in the role of the student consultant. They work with actual clients on performance improvement processes. It is an integration of learning from prior course work and application to a “real time” client system. The average annual client revenue ranges from zero to twenty million dollars. The average student is 25 years old, and the typical client is 42 years old. Each student is required to generate a simulated revenue flow of $5,000 in 6 weeks. The course has the following process and professional development objectives.
- Develop understanding and effectiveness in using the scientific method of inquiry by preparing, executing, and presenting a primary research project
- Gather data and diagnose problems through a holistic understanding of the organization
- Perform a gap analysis and develop action plans for performance improvement
- Understand the issues of aligning strategy, processes, and action plans
Professional Development Objectives:
- Develop research and team presentation skills
- Develop skills in persuasion and leadership
- Learn how to manage conflict and change
- Build confidence and increase individual communication skills
- Learn how to set up and conduct effective meetings
In this course the Baldrige Organizational Profile (OP) has become the instrument of choice for the organizational analysis in the consulting relationship. Prior to the selection of the OP, a theoretical framework highlighting human resource management, organizational structure, and culture was used. While theoretically sound, the model was complex and not “student friendly”. Students were given categories and a list of questions. They randomly chose questions, interviewed managers, and reported the responses in their final papers. The theoretical framework was “just another assignment” given by the instructor. It was completed to meet the requirements of the course. It did not appear to add value beyond the class assignment. We have found that the use of the OP has provided structure, ease of application, and served as an educational tool for both the student and the organization.
The applicants for the Baldrige award have to provide a description of their organization and what is important to that organization in terms of key factors such as its customers, products and/or services, competition, employees, supplier and partnering relationships, its regulatory and legal environment and organizational directions. In the year 2001, the required information to be provided by the applicant was made more specific and explicit by a series of questions that the applicant has to respond to. These questions constitute the OP*. It is a snapshot of the organization, the key influences on how it operates, and the key challenges it faces.
The following innovative features highlight this instructional approach:
- The students apply the OP in an educational context as a performance improvement tool in a business research course.
- As student consultants, they translate the OP and teach it to local business managers. As consultants, the students play two roles—a learner and an educator.
- Students first learn the concepts and the power of the OP as an integrated assessment tool. Here they are expected to draw upon prior coursework from other business classes.
- In the second role as consultant, they are challenged to “sense make” the OP by translating and making it relevant and meaningful for the client. This process results in students becoming teachers and guides to local business leaders who may not have a college education.
For instance, one student commented “Because we are business students and also are familiar with the Baldrige criteria, we have a more comprehensive understanding of the language used in the questions of the OP. After meeting with our client a couple of times, we knew that we could not ask those questions verbatim. We recognized that without a knowledge of the criteria, the client might find some of the wording confusing and difficult to understand. Therefore, we met as a group to discuss how to ask these questions in a manner that would not confuse or intimidate our client while still obtaining the necessary information. In a very conversational and casual manner, we asked the questions using the words and phrases that were familiar to the client. Such as, instead of asking, “What are the principal factors that determine your success relative to your competitors,” we asked, “What makes your products/services better than anyone else’s?” We asked, “Tell us about your customers. Are they typically middle-aged or retired? Do they have a certain income level? Do you have a specific coverage area?” instead of, “What are your key customer groups and/or market segments?” While we did not use the OP’s questions word-for-word, we still got the same information using an informal approach. Not only did this technique allow us to get the needed information to write the OP, but it also served as a learning tool for our client. It forced the client to really look at the organization. Although the client knew all the answers, this question-and-answer session brought to attention of the client, the organizational strengths as well as some opportunities for improvement. When we asked our client about vision and mission, we found the client did not have one. However, just by us asking that question, the client realized the importance of a mission statement. This is just one example of how the OP can be used as a learning tool, as opposed to an evaluative instrument.”
- Students learn and apply an organizational analysis process. Contextual learning occurs. The logic is one of theory-practice-practice informed by theory. Multiple models, theories, and relationships are presented in the Academy typically in disciplinary silos. However, these concepts remain “empty,” are “skeletons” or just buzz words for students until they have a context to “hang” them on. As one typical student stated: “By helping the company develop their OP, we were also able to help our client recognize some Opportunities for Improvement (OFIs). The OFIs were only identified when we asked him the questions pertaining to the OP.”
The OP is publicly available and easily accessible worldwide through the internet. The content and the process underlying this interdisciplinary innovation lends itself to global transferability in national and international business education. Therefore, it is suited for use in integrative capstone courses such as business policy, small business consulting, and entrepreneurship courses, where there is an experiential component or case study methodology. The authors also envision it being relevant in management and executive development programs, workshops on performance improvement, and organizational analysis for practitioners, venture capitalists, and small businesses.
In summary, students’ learning is enhanced as a result of transferring theory into practice, becoming subject matter experts to clients, creating visible performance improvement processes that are quantifiable in real monetary terms, gaining confidence in their skills, and ability to replicate the process in other business settings. The application of the OP is a win-win situation for all. The student benefits by presenting actual deliverables to prospective employers. “Being turned loose to do the caliber of work most definitely gave me the kind of real-world experience I wanted,” stated one student. The work is not easy. It is work! One student reflected, “Business Research turned out to be more difficult than the syllabus indicated, but the project built confidence that will carry over into our futures.” Local businesses benefit by improving their business processes. The University benefits by graduating competent and confident business professionals. The general business community benefits by gaining access to free professional services.
*The questions for the education and health care sector are tailored to those sectors. (www.nist.gov/baldrige/about-baldrige-excellence-framework) A simpler version of the Organizational Profile questionnaire (for the business, education and the health care sectors) called E-Baldrige Organizational Profile is available at the Baldrige website. An organization can complete it online and receive a comparison with other organizations that have also completed it.