Technical Management Students help SMEs in digital transformation
Background: At the UIIN 2018 conference, in a presentation with the title of “A new student-SME cooperation model at Óbuda University”, our concepts were outlined in the Next Practice Proposals section. Now we can report about our results.
The main problem: We believe that University-Business cooperation should be addressed at student level as well. Not as a competitor to the longer term models (like dual or cooperative education) we wanted to show the viability and benefits of a project and innovation centred approach. For this end we selected a topic that is on the agenda in many countries and in the EU Commission as well, the digital transformation of traditional SMEs and micro companies. Our goal was to involve students in teams in defining a digital strategy for an SME and to design concrete solutions for the companies. The problem in these cases is fairly straightforward and it is relatively easy for the students to develop solutions together with the company taking into consideration the often discussed generational advantages/differences (Generation Z). At the same time, this gives the students an insight into the business and problems of a small company that usually is not in the focus at universities.
For the SMEs these projects can open up a new path that otherwise would not be accessible because of lack of motivation, expertise and cost problems.
The approach taken: At the Faculty of Business there was an earlier decision to launch a practical innovation subject for undergraduates, primarily for technical managers. The task was given to the author of this paper. The original title of the course was “Innovation Methods for Everyone”. In the process of development, it was decided that this subject would be the right place to include the innovation and project based University - (small) Business cooperation “experiment”.
The first half of the semester covered the basic definitions and concepts of innovation and a more detailed and practice oriented introduction of three methods/approaches (SIT – Systematic Inventive Thinking, Lean Startup, TRIZ).
In the second half of the semester the 15 students worked in 4 teams with 4 micro companies. The companies were selected with the cooperation of a municipality run incubator, close to the campus. It was not difficult to get on board the 4 companies, their founders/CEOs were very enthusiastic and although they were just one generation older than the students, they had a completely different relationship to digital technologies. They accepted that their active participation (as “mentors”) will be needed in the following 5-6 weeks. (The businesses of the companies: a honey production and distribution; a car-parts; a wood material distribution; engineering design.)
The process was the following:
• self-introduction of the companies and their problems; the students select their companies;
• deeper explanations about the company and the problems (some groups made even site visits, although it was not compulsory);
• idea generation and work on the first draft of the proposed solution, with the help of the teacher, possibly utilizing (some of) the methods learned;
• verbal only presentation of the first draft to the companies in front of everyone, feedback, remarks from the company “mentors”;
• finalizing the solution(s)
• short presentation (pitching) training
• final presentations (5 minutes + Q&A); report
Results and conclusions: The final presentations and reports were of high quality. The feedback was very positive both from the students and the companies. All four founders said that they will implement at least certain parts of the solutions and at the final presentations they have even agreed to meet again with their teams to continue the work (completely outside the university requirements). Three out of four founders want to be involved in the next semester as well. The students said that this combination of theory and practical work with real companies was a great experience for them. This experience can help in the development of entrepreneurial interest of the students.
The University wants to continue this subject possibly even raising the number of groups. The initial evaluation concluded that in the future some of the projects may generate even research projects.