Full-time UT students in the master's business administration program will now participate in a program that gives students the chance to put their business skills to the test while helping out non-profits in East Tennessee.

Innovation in Practice, which began as a pilot course in 2004, is now a requirement for all first-year MBA students. The program, co-led by faculty members Glenn Swift and Pat Richardson, gives students the chance to consult non-profit organizations in the area on real-world projects, such as acquiring new properties or increasing earned income.

The program was created for UT's MBA program as a means of giving students applied skills in business that will, in turn, give them an edge in the job market.

"Nobody is going to hire students just for what they know," Swift said. "They are going to hire them for what they can do."

The students are divided into teams of five and have a faculty mentor to give the students guidance and insight. Each team has its own non-profit organization, and the team is solely in charge of the direction of the project.

While the program might work with social causes such as museums and literacy programs, Swift argued that non-profits still offer valuable practice in business consulting.

"Non-profits have the same problems that for-profits have," he said.

Swift added that working with non-profit organizations is valuable to the organizations, the university and the East Tennessee area.

"UT is a public land-grant university, so we should, and are, giving back to the area, and this program is a great outreach to the community," he said.

Joy Fisher, a lecturer at UT's MBA entrepreneurship program working as a mentor for the Innovation in Practice project, agreed that Innovation in Practice compels MBA students to approach business problems from different perspectives.

"The program is a problem-solving method that can be used not only in developing business skills but life skills as well," she said. "It's a process that takes you beyond your comfort level to look for new ideas to solve problems."

Raymond Stark, a retired executive of Honeywell Specialty Materials, was approached by co-founder Swift about the MBA program one day and thought it was an opportunity to help students get practice in real-world business.

"When I retired, one of my objectives was to network in the local area and to give back after working 35 years in the industry," he said.

"I have worked with faculty members in the past by helping provide students access to business technologies. UT approached me to help provide these technologies to MBA students wanting to gain hands-on business experiences."

Stark argued that the Innovation in Practice program gives students a different learning environment that offers more hands-on learning.

"It is not a lecture or a standard course with tests that you have to pass in order to pass the class. This is probably the only course they have that is not a traditional lecture environment," he said. "They are put in an environment with a coach and a real-world problem situation. These students want to get out in the real world and this program lets them practice that."

Fisher agreed, noting that some business lessons are learned beyond the classroom.

"You can never really learn what business is like by studying it in a book," she said. "This program gives students a hands-on experience that allows students to apply what they are learning in their textbooks and use it in a real-life environment."

While the program molds students' business minds into critical thinking, Fisher added that the program gives students a competitive edge in the job market.

"Innovation in Practice gives students more credibility in the business world," he said.

Stark said the process the students go through is a good example of a real consulting project.

"Swift and Richardson identify the non-profit organizations and give the students the organization's problem statement," he said. "They have eight weeks to analyze the problem, prepare different solutions and finally make a recommendation and meet with the organization's executives."

Fisher said, while students must make a recommendation to their non-profit organization, the point of the program is to develop their skills on coming up with recommendations, not necessarily what the recommendation is.

"There are no black-and-white answers," she said. "There are answers in this program, but they aren't necessarily always right answers. This allows students to operate in a state of ambiguity, which is something they will encounter in real life."

Stark said the eight-week deadline offers students a glimpse into the time pressures of working in business. He believes that the program challenges students to realize the true potential of their business minds.

"This program is a test of their own ability, and the feedback they get from real-world clients is a great learning tool," he said.

The program might be beneficial to MBA students, but Fisher said non-profit organizations also prosper from the eight-week experience.

"The client gets to hear fresh new ideas and solutions to their business problems," she said. "When the students gain valuable skills and the client gets value out of the recommendation, the program is a success."