19th December 2017

Dublin City University (DCU) Business School has long recognised the holistic learning benefits that students gain from working with SMEs both on our undergraduate and postgraduate programme. On the MSc in Human Resource Management, Dr Brian Harney has introduced a new module which has formally embedded SME engagement into the curriculum. This is done through a small firm consulting project for SMEs in the Plato Small Business Development Network at DCU.

Consulting projects on the MSc in Human Resource Management – the Format
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 Plato 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 multi-national companies that dominate the media, policy and academic spotlight.

Key learning outcomes:

  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: 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 and interviewing an actual business and applying concepts to a 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: Gaining a better understanding of everything that goes into a successful strategy, the challenges of managing strategy, managing cultural and leadership change.

  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 from students 

  • 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.

  • This was a great way of getting 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.

  • The concept of poaching had never crossed my mind yet is a big issue. The difficulties that can arise regarding turnover issues.

Dr. Brian Harney is an Associate Professor in Strategic HRM at Dublin City University Business School and Programme Director of the MSc in HRM.
This evaluation of curriculum innovations and SME engagement forms part of the Global Entrepreneurial Talent Management 3 project funded by European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No 734824.