Learning By Doing: Stepping into the Shoes of an Internal Consultant

December 20, 2023 by Andy Vatiliotou

The soft skills we developed while meeting and collaborating with our client are invaluable. We spent four years taking industrial relations courses in an academic setting, and having the opportunity to step into the shoes of consultants and display what we've been learning was a great way to finish our fourth year. This course is as applicable as it gets when transitioning into my next steps after my undergrad. - Isaiah Flores

Undergraduate Student group with CIRHR Director Rafael Gomez and Double Take Thrift Store Manager, Sharon AbelIn a non-descript room, five consultants are presenting their findings and recommendations to their client, Sharon Abel, at the headquarters of the Yonge Street Mission (YSM). It appears to be a particularly busy day — just outside the office, moving dollies are transporting sky-high boxes of donated toys for YSM’s annual toy drive. Members of staff and the communities they serve are passing in and out of meeting rooms, not unlike this one, where they’re collaborating on goals and action plans to affect positive change in Regent Park and the broader GTA community. In the next building, another influx of clothing donations has been received which will soon be catalogued and cleaned before being placed on the shelves of the YSM’s Double Take Thrift Store. But, despite all this activity, Ms. Abel couldn’t be more present. When the presentation finally concludes, there is a round of thank yous and the consultants are commended for their professionalism. It’s at this point that Professor Rafael Gomez gives his five undergraduate students a thumbs up. Their final presentation for IRE446: Working as an Internal Organizational Consultant: A Community-Engaged Learning Experience has concluded, and his students can now breathe a little easier after a job well-done.

Most people learn best by doing, which is why Professor Gomez’s undergraduate course gives students the opportunity to make use of their learning in real-time.

“By design, students not only come away from this course with an understanding of the theory and models surrounding the internal consulting process,” he says, “but also work in small groups with a real community organization, using all of the knowledge, and exercising the newly-developed skills, in their toolbox.”

Our students were incredibly fortunate this year to be working with the TLN Media Group, Canada's culturally connected English specialty TV channel featuring Food, Lifestyle & Entertainment Programs; Spotwork which creates and fills flexible work opportunities by connecting employers and qualified workers; and non-profit Yonge Street Mission’s Double Take Thrift Store which sells vintage clothing and accessories with all proceeds supporting community members in need.

Working with a community organization offers our students real, hands-on learning centered around the end-to-end, internal consulting process, including site visits and meetings with their clients to familiarize themselves with their client’s organization.

“Our group met with our Spotwork representative at least once a month in order to effectively understand their needs as a client,” says undergraduate student, Emily Bittorf. “This helped us shape our final presentation and report in order to provide them with quality and useful work. We had ongoing discussions about our progress and the direction of our project with the Director of Marketing and the Head of Business Development — this was incredibly helpful, as we were provided with valuable guidance and support throughout the completion of our project.”

One of the most pivotal aspects of the internal consulting project, however, is the necessity to work as a cohesive team to understand their client’s institutional challenges, collect and analyze data, collaborate on the development of actionable solutions, jointly present those solutions and recommendations to the client, and deliver a final, detailed report to support the continued success of their client’s organization.

“Our group worked well together to effectively balance our strengths and weaknesses,” says Bittorf. “We benefited from a variety of backgrounds and perspectives which enriched our learning experience and research process as a whole. I have been so fortunate to work with such a talented group of students who have all taught me so much throughout this project.”

Students also had the opportunity to do mock presentations in front of their classmates prior to delivering recommendations to their client stakeholders, allowing them to share ideas, pick up helpful tips, sharpen their presentation and interpersonal skills, and enhance the visual impact of their slide decks.

“Several of my classmates excelled in animating their slides, making them both appealing and clear, which greatly assisted the rest of us in grasping their points,” says undergraduate student, Ashley Lu. “Consequently, after observing the presentations of other teams, we revised our own presentation to enhance its conciseness and visual appeal.”

Of course, Professor Gomez’s course isn’t just a learning opportunity for our student. The course also provides participating organizations like the Yonge Street Mission the opportunity to harness the fresh perspectives and intellectual power of an up-and-coming cohort of IRHR professionals.

Exterior and Interior of the Yonge Street Mission's Double Take Thrift Store

“We have all this data at our fingertips, but we’ve been so busy, just trying to keep our heads above water,” says Sharon Abel, the Manager of YSM’s Double Take Thrift Store.  “As a non-profit, we don’t have a lot of resources to go out and hire consultants. We do the best we can with the resources we have, so it was really helpful to have this opportunity to meet these practicing consultants.., and I’m so grateful for the data-analysis work they did. The students were really professional and incredibly easy to communicate with."

On behalf of Professor Gomez, we would like to acknowledge and extend our deepest gratitude to Sharon Abel of the Yonge Street Mission, Asher Lichtman of Spotwork, and Ingrid Zaldivar of the TLN Media Group for their participation, their active engagement, for so generously welcoming our students into their organizations’ offices, and for nurturing their development. Students often report that the skills they’ve learned during this project will continue to serve them well in their future careers and collaborations to come, and this is especially true for this cohort:

I enhanced my communication, organization, and teamwork skills, learned how to convincingly present my viewpoints by leveraging both primary and secondary research, and developed the skill of articulately expressing my personal opinions respectfully and effectively. - Ashley Lu

In addition to learning how to work effectively as a team, one of the biggest take-aways from this course was using different objective lenses to analyze complex cases. We were also exposed to various consulting tools which helped my team greatly in completing quality work for our client. - Emily Bittorf

Not many programs or courses put students in a realistic, client-facing environment. We covered overarching themes and methodologies in class, but there's no substitute for the interactions and conversations we had with our client - a transferable learning experience and an integral component of the course. - Isaiah Flores