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Business students solve real-life client challenges through ‘design thinking’ course

December 06, 2017

Contact:  Michael Tullier, APR
Office of Communications, Public Relations and Marketing

Students standing with food pantry staff and volunteers
Students partner with food pantry staff and volunteers to better understand the food-distribution process​

For a group of students in Dr. Jack Crumbly’s “Design Thinking” course, “homework” takes on a new meaning. For them, homework comes through the practical application of classroom concepts to real-world challenges faced by the clients with which these students collaborate.

Crumbly, an associate professor in Tuskegee’s Andrew F. Brimmer College of Business and Information Science, turned to organizations in the community to provide his students with a forum to apply their problem-solving skills.

“The term ‘design thinking’ requires us to approach organizational problems by analyzing the entire system,” Crumbly said. “We strive to understand their challenges, identify deficiencies and opportunities, and implement innovative solutions based on that analysis and research.”

While the students’ three clients — the Tuskegee Area Chamber of Commerce, the municipal Utilities Board of Tuskegee, and the nonprofit Macon County Food Pantry — differ in how they operate, the group agreed that communications and audience engagement played critical roles in the solutions each team is developing for their respective clients.

Mercedes Madlock, a senior from Omaha, Nebraska, majoring in accounting, explained her group’s work with the Tuskegee Area Chamber of Commerce, a membership-based organization comprised of representatives of the local business community that promotes business development and community networking.

“We are specifically helping the chamber engage with university students as potential members through its new student membership level,” Madlock said.

She noted that her group’s work also has focused on evaluating the quality and outdatedness of the chamber’s social media and website content, as well as helping the chamber expand into additional social media platforms. The effort also has included updating its database of membership information and elevating its community profile through developing information fairs and other outreach events.

Justin Plummer, a senior from Indianapolis majoring in information systems, echoed the chamber of commerce’s need to be more generationally relevant.

“We’ve been trying to bring the chamber into the 21st century,” Plummer said. “Tuskegee is a very historic city, but we also want to move the chamber toward the future as well. We’re trying to increase student engagement with the chamber because that will increase business activity and new ideas.”

“The students’ assessment of the chamber has helped point out deficiencies we need to address,” said Karin Hopkins, who worked with the students through her role as the chamber’s executive director. “Their ideas have been on target with our desire to grow internally, but also to reach out externally to a new audience by engaging university students.”

Kia Brown, a senior from Florence, Alabama, majoring in computer science, explained that her group, which partnered with the Utilities Board of Tuskegee, took an external customer’s approach to evaluating UBT’s needs. She noted that customers’ perceptions of higher-than-average utilities costs and less-than-desired customer awareness of UBT programs was casting the municipally managed utilities provider as the “enemy” of the end user.

“Our goal was to help UBT better inform and educate its customers about their power usage and expenses through a greater sense of empathy shown by UBT,” Brown said. “It’s also about educating customers about how insulation and other home upgrades can affect the differences in their energy costs compared to their neighbors as a way to avoid confusion and frustration.”

The student team has worked with UBT representatives to educate customers about the availability and use of real-time smart readers, along with utility pre-payment and online account programs.

“One of the intangibles of the partnership between the students and UBT is the notion of transparency,” Hopkins observed. “Prior to this effort, there had been little dialogue between student customers and UBT’s management team.”

“We’ve also challenged UBT representatives to consider greater outreach into and engagement with the community to increase that sense of transparency, as well as its customers’ understanding,” said Jamarcus McCall, a senior from Birmingham majoring in accounting and finance.

Victoria Ingram, a senior from St. Louis, Missouri, majoring in finance, outlined her team’s collaboration with the Macon County Food Pantry. Goals for their efforts include streamlining the organization’s food-distribution process and updating its database. She also noted that inconsistencies in how the food pantry enforces its distribution policies have led to instances of a “double-dipping” of the food pantry’s services.

Crumbly said that client needs like those of the food pantry have allowed students to engage external partners as part of their efforts to develop solutions for their clients’ needs. These corporate partners include Verizon’s Innovation Group and Statement, an information technology consulting firm.

He also recognized that, in the case of the food pantry project, that designing thinking has both observable short- and long-term implications. In the short-term, the students’ work will undergird the organization’s efforts to be more efficient and equitable in its operations; however, he has challenged students to consider the design-thinking impact of alleviating hunger on the organization’s long-term mission.

“Should our solutions stop at streamlining the food-distribution process and providing these area residents with food, or should we continue with our efforts until we eliminate their dependence on the food pantry,” he challenged, referring to other opportunities to assess clients’ skill sets, employment potential and other social support efforts that would instill greater self-sufficiency among the food pantry’s clients.

Morgan Screws, a senior from Pittsville, Alabama, majoring in management information systems, noted that success for the food pantry project would include expanding the food pantry’s reach, effectiveness and efficiency so it can serve more of the area’s needy in an organized fashion.

“You actually get to see how what you learn in class applies to real-life situations,” Shayla Jones added. “We can talk about empathy all day long, but until I get to experience displaying empathy, it’s useless to me.”

“There’s hope that not only will these students come out with good grades, but with a mindset of innovation and to value the short-term outcomes equally with the long-term ones,” Crumbly said. “Not everyone wants to work in a corporate setting, so whether the students realize it or not, this opportunity also allows them to be entrepreneurs who can apply design thinking to empathize with clients or customers, or to solve problems quickly and effectively.”

Hopkins commended the students for their diligence and for how they represent the university through their project work.

“The students ask really intelligent questions and they seem sincerely interested in developing impactful outcomes,” Hopkins said. “I have a great deal respect for their intellectual approaches. I can’t wait to see what they ultimately come up with.”

© 2017 Tuskegee University