Learning on the job

Business students master their craft while helping a local timber business

They came from virtually every corner of the Rogue Valley business community — from private companies to nonprofit organizations, from the chamber of commerce to the Rogue Valley Transportation District — all flocking to Ashland, all asking Southern Oregon University’s masters of business administration students for a little help.
A lot of help, actually.
The problems are as diverse as the companies hoping to solve them, but their motivations are all the same: detailed, targeted research, the kind of valuable data they can’t get on their own, and analysis, all certified by the institutional review board.
It’s a long, arduous process that requires hundreds of hours formulating survey questions, tabulating and analyzing results and presenting the findings in a way that’s comprehensive but digestible, and research firms that provide this service can charge thousands of dollars to do so. For that reason, SOU’s free service, offered to local business through its MBA program, is a valuable tool — if you can get your hands on it. Not everybody can, however.
At the beginning of SOU’s fall term, six businesses, each plucked out of a larger pool, were invited to present their potential projects to students in the school’s Business Research 519 class. Mike Hill, the safety director for Timber Products Company, was one of those people looking to make a winning pitch that day back in early October. Timber Products owns eight wood mills across the U.S., including one in Medford, and has 1,004 employees.
Safety culture and how it relates to injuries sustained on the job at Timber Products is a subject that greatly interested Hill, so when he heard about SOU’s offer through a co-worker, he threw together a proposal and crossed his fingers. After that proposal was selected as a finalist, he headed to SOU to show the students what he had in mind. There, Hill and the other business representatives lined up in a hallway and waited their turn.
“It felt like going on Shark Tank or something,” Hill said.
Hill’s PowerPoint went swimmingly, in part because it offered a unique challenge. The three-student team he spoke to was drawn to the size of the company — one of the largest ever taken on by a class at SOU — and the complexity of Hill’s proposal.
Hill knew his idea had struck a chord when the group continued to ask questions, pushing the meeting beyond its 15-minute time frame. After all the team’s questions were answered, Matt Chesler, one of the team members, told Hill that his proposal had been chosen as the team’s final project.
To Chesler, it wasn’t the simplest proposal they heard that day; not by a long shot. But it was the most exciting.
“We recognized that it was the hardest project up there,” said Chesler, 38, who juggles school with a family and a full-time job as vice president of mission services for Goodwill Industries of Southern Oregon. “It was the most interesting and the most challenging, and we wanted to do it. You basically have a lot of type-A personalities who are like, ‘How hard can we make this on ourselves,’ honestly. And it was the biggest challenge.”
For one of Chesler’s project teammates, Danielle Hinkley, a full-time student, the attraction to Timber Products was more personal. Hinkley, 32, hails from Chicago, Ill., and many of the men in her extended family have blue-collar jobs working on assembly lines and in junkyards.
“So when I heard ‘Timber Products,’” she said, “I heard about all the guys that helped raise me.”
Once they decided to take on Timber Products’ proposal, the group then set about gathering primary and secondary data. Primary data is that which comes directly from the source; secondary data is that which has already been collected in previous studies.
The primary data sought by the team was Timber Products employees’ opinions regarding safety in the workplace, and attaining that data is not easy, especially if it is to stand up to the scrutiny of the institutional review board. The IRB approves all behavioral research involving humans. To get the IRB’s stamp of approval each question must be carefully worded — no leading questions allowed, and no questions that may cause distress.
The team’s final questionnaire was broken down into nine categories, with about seven questions per category. Deciding which questions to ask and how required two to three late-night Skype sessions per week, many lasting until past midnight. Team member Steve Dickson, 35, says he averaged about five hours of sleep a night during the three-month project, juggling his own family and a full-time job as a medical technician. He jokes that his 2-year-old son learned to say, “I’m working” during those busy months, but is quick to add that the experience, both professionally and personally, was well worth it.
“It was very time-consuming,” Dickson said, “and a lot of fun.”
Once the team had the questionnaire ready to go it set about distributing it, which proved to be challenging. Since Timber Products does not keep track of email addresses for each of its employees, the surveys had to be handed out the old-fashioned way, hand-to-hand at safety meetings.
In the end, the team was able to gather more than enough responses — 462 — to keep the margin of error down and meet the criteria for being statistically sound.
Once the data was collected, the team then turned its attention to figuring out what it all meant so that it could present to Timber Products a detailed analysis and make recommendations. The team did that in the form of a 104-page report which explained the methodology and the results and also included all the raw data. It all came together during the team’s PowerPoint presentation to Timber Products managers.
“My undergraduate (degree) was in business and my graduate degree will be in business and I still get really nervous with every presentation,” Hinkley said.
Hill said SOU’s business students had nothing to worry about.
“They presented to the whole management team and talked about their findings from their research, and all the managers were really impressed,” he said. “Then after the students left we talked about ideas that drive those kinds of attitudes about safety and things that we can do to strengthen that, and came up with an action list going forward.
“They did a phenomenal job.”
SOU business professor Donna Lane, who counseled the students through the entire process, says the class project is always as valuable to the students as it is to the client.
“The students love it because they are doing real stuff,” she said. “Not only are they learning it, but learning it first hand, and actually providing a service and something that’s meaningful to a company. And, it’s something to put on your resume.”

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