Lancashire businesses are benefitting from the fresh thinking and innovative ideas of sharp-minded business students as they tackle issues around the Covid-19 pandemic, business growth and development.
Companies across the county are working with students on the Lancaster University Management School (LUMS) postgraduate MSc Management course as part of a summer consultancy project.
The project – which has been operating digitally after the UK government’s lockdown restrictions ruled out any physical meetings – is a new element of the successful Lancashire Forum, fully-funded by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF).
The Forum, delivered across Lancashire as part of Boost, Lancashire’s business growth hub, has been helping SME leaders grow their businesses for more than six years, and the consultancy component is designed to stimulate different thinking and far-reaching ideas among businesses, students and academics alike.
The introduction of consultancy from postgraduate teams coincided with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, presenting not just new challenges, but also the opportunity for the students and companies involved to come together and work on solutions to issues it has thrown up.
“The consultancy project is about supporting the Lancashire economy and local businesses while engaging our multicultural cohort of students in appreciating the importance of the area’s economy,” said Dr Radka Newton, Senior Teaching Fellow in LUMS and Director of the MSc Management programme.
“We are not coming in as the experts – the businesses are the experts. But maybe they’ve been stuck, or are looking for a fresh perspective, especially in such unparalleled times as we are experiencing with Covid-19. The world today is more uncertain and instead of aiming for ‘perfect’ you need to learn how to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty.”
Dr Newton added: “The young people on our student teams bring all the curiosity, enthusiasm and insight you expect from a new generation of savvy customers, along with experience and perspectives from many different cultures, but they don’t bring assumptions or the barrier that says ‘it’s not feasible’, which can inhibit good ideas being developed. We’re trying to help these businesses help themselves to maximise their potential.”
The teams, made up of either four or five students, have been working with academic supervisors and the companies to identify their challenges, many related to the pandemic and its cascading effects on society and business.
As all the interaction is virtual, and students do not have the opportunity to visit the companies in person, a virtual whiteboard function where students develop Business Model Canvas to allow for a mutual understanding of the companies’ operations has been set up.
Over a six-week period in June and July, the students will devise potential solutions to the challenges they identify through the analysis of the Canvas. Once the teams have presented their reports in August, the companies are expected to produce their own action plans a month later.
Among the challenges the teams have been presented with are how to digitise a business based around physical operations, overcoming the challenges of running manual stores and outlets and introducing new routines; how to improve business efficiency and control expansion while maintaining sustainability; how to break into new markets at home and abroad; and how to adapt in the long-term to the circumstances caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We have an established reputation of working with businesses to address the challenges they face with the academic insights we possess here at Lancaster University Management School,” said Lancashire Forum programme manager, Matt Hutchinson. “Working with Radka and our Masters students – who have benefited from the high-quality teaching in the School – to tackle Covid-19-related problems is one of the ways we can continue to do that through the lockdown and the social distancing restrictions affecting us all.”
He added: “When Covid-19 struck, we needed to fulfil the opportunities for the students, as their degrees depended on it. We also needed to ensure that the businesses involved with the Lancashire Forum gained something valuable which genuinely benefitted them in what is a true time of crisis.”