DCU has long been recognised for its leading edge engagement with small-medium sized enterprises. In 2017 it became the only university in Ireland to be awarded the ABS Small Firm Charter status.

On the MSc in Human Resource Management, we have innovated in our teaching by introducing a new module which has formally embedded SME engagement into the curriculum in the form of a small firm, mini-practicum. Through the format of extended lectures, workshops, interviews with SME owner managers, and guest lectures, students work to conduct an organisational analysis of a local SME. Students obtain formative feedback throughout the process, culminating in a final report and the presentation of three strategic recommendations back to the SME owner manager.

Reviewing student reflections on this type of assignment is always insightful. It provides a timely reminder that true education is not all about grades, but more holistic learning. It also re-affirms that invaluable lessons come from the small firms found all around us, and not just those select MNCs that dominate the media, policy and academic spotlight.

Sample Student Reflections on the assignment

  • Great insight on the workings of a business. Good experience of seeing how SMEs function in various sectors. Interesting thinking about the practical ways to improve business with limited resources.
  •  Really brilliant assignment, insight into real world business issues. Great to have access arranged already to a range of interesting SMEs.
  • Insights on how an SME is run and what the key factors are in order for it to be successful.
  • Great experience to deal with a real company, do an analysis and create a set of recommendations and presenting these in front of the company owner.  Very different to your ‘average’ group assignment.
  •  For some classmates, this was the first time they were in contact with firms, not as candidates but as external helpers.
  • The most valuable thing for me was using these tools and generating solutions out of them. We provided recommendations and our SME really took them on board

Key learning outcomes (as detailed by students)

  1. Application of tools: Applying academic tools to real-life practical examples. Understanding how key frameworks/theories apply in a real-life business.
  2. Analytical thinking: to solve problems but within the remit of the SME. Managing recommendations that match resources/ Developing recommendations in a ‘politically correct way’. Understanding what the company wants/needs and that your initial recommendations may not suit.
  3. Dealing with People: Dealing with management expectations and values. Dealing with an interviewing an actual business/applying concepts to an actual real SME. How to communicate with owner managers to get the info you need. Understanding what SMEs really want from their perspective.
  4. Teamwork: Working as a team to develop recommendations. Working as a team to conduct the analysis and overcoming any conflicts of opinion. Importance of teamwork and interaction.
  5. Understanding business: Better understanding of everything that goes into a successful strategy. How to make good strategy for the organisation. I’m much more aware of business strategy. Gained a deeper insight into online business. Learned business terminology I would not have understood previously. Managers/CEOs are passionate about their business. Challenges of managing strategy. Managing cultural and leadership change. The importance of culture in an organisation. The effect of sector/industry context on a business and organisational analysis.
  6. Interlinkage of strategy and HR: Bridge the gap between HR and strategy. Integration of strategy with people. Emphasize the link between strategy and people
  7. SME dynamics: The struggle for local SME existence. Social media not always the answer- technology in your business is not straightforward

Unexpected outcomes/benefits/insights (as detailed by students)

  • ·Real businesses do use academic tools
  • Increased my overall confidence in my abilities
  • Every business has its weaknesses, and it often takes an external, independent person to spot them
  • Owner/managers in SMEs are very passionate and knowledgeable but sometimes lack a ‘business’ mindset. Managers in SMEs do not always want to expand their business
  • The strategy, organisational structure and people are mostly looked as different aspects of the business, but this module helped in mapping all. Good links across all modules that we could link to our analysis
  • To get in-depth insight on what it is like to run an SME and the numerous considerations management have to keep in mind health, safety, training, finance and marketing was very intriguing. I did not expect so few staff.
  • Concept of poaching had never crossed my mind yet is a big issues. The difficulties that can arise regarding turnover issues.
  • How little time is placed by SMEs on formulating strategy
  • Good for interviews- employers like hearing about something different. SME analysis very useful for future career. When I went for an interview with an oragnisation I was surprised just how interested the interviewer was in the project.
  • Have experience dealing with an SME company owner and listening to other SME analysis to gain insight on how other teams approached this.
  • Unexpected difficulty in fitting recommendations with what SME wanted- wanted growth but not prepared to take steps to get there.
  • Unique example of group work, highlights understanding of concepts. Deeper insight into business world and key implications. Matching real life examples and organisations with theoretical frameworks. We got to give our opinions and solutions to future problems.
  • That the SMEs were so grateful and open to hear our analysis and recommendations
  • I didn’t realise how much of an impact the ‘real world’ links would have on me. Now we are looking at businesses and thinking beyond the face of the business.
  • Overall, a very interesting and effective assignment. Helped all the group gain confidence through interviews, helped us understand the ins and outs of SMEs and how the ‘idealistic recommendations’ may not always suit and how to tailor these to the SME needs. Brilliant module- great to add some business acumen to our HR brains.
  • This module gave me the confidence to use more business related words. I also think the SME analysis will be great to talk about in job interviews.

Find out more about the DCU MSc in HRM

* With thanks to the SMEs who volunteered to facilitate the student analysis, and the PLATO network for providing access to their small firm clients.


Brian Harney
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