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SFU Bookstore.

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Hands-on learning is increasingly a staple of business school education, with students expected to apply theory from the classroom to real-world situations.

In a new twist on experiential learning, undergraduates at Simon Fraser University's Beedie School of Business work with the campus bookstore to solve some of its retail challenges and, in the process, learn how to collaborate.

The bookstore project, introduced last fall as part of a required course, is aimed at second-year students who transfer to Beedie from local colleges or another faculty at Burnaby, B.C.-based SFU. For the semester-long course, Foundations for Collaborative Work Environments, students learn the theory of collaboration in a diverse work environment and apply that knowledge to advise the bookstore on a new line of Beedie-branded merchandise.

Each group of 15 students is given a budget of $150 for the semester to manage one Beedie product, such as a pen, binder or notebook. Within each group, three teams of five students are assigned responsibility for marketing and promotion, product management or accounting and operations.

When the semester wrapped in December, each group made a formal presentation to the bookstore, with recommendations to keep, modify or drop a product. This month, a new cohort of students picks up where their predecessors left off, with a fresh round of analysis required on the Beedie products. In effect, the class project generates a perpetual cycle of advice to the bookstore, which also wants to deepen ties with its student customers across campus.

In the course, students are taught to work together and manage conflicts to achieve a common goal, just as in the business world. While students have some experience working in small groups, they are less accustomed to managing tensions that arise in large groups.

"What matters is that they have gone through a process where they have had to disagree," says Andrew Gemino, associate dean of undergraduate programs at Beedie. "They had to work together, iron out their differences and come up with one presentation for [the group of] 15 people."

South Korean-born student Junone Kang had little experience working in large groups before arriving at Beedie last fall. "It takes effort when the group gets bigger," he says. "It was great experience because I know in the real world we have to work in big groups."

Mr. Kang, who expects to graduate in 2018, says "even though there were some painful moments and some hard work to do, at the end we had a really nice presentation."

Sean Brown, a business student from North Vancouver, B.C., also found working in a large group initially unsettling.

"There are a lot of people who have different ways of thinking and different ways of doing work," he says. However, he says, the course "teaches you how to see that conflict is a good thing. A lot of people see it as a negative thing, but it can be a chance to do better when you can build on different ideas."

That realization is one desired outcome of the course, says co-instructor Shauna Jones. "It's something they [students] never would have expected in an undergraduate program in a big business school," she says. "They like getting to know themselves, getting to know other students and learning how to work better together."

The course has no quizzes and exams. Instead, the bookstore project is a vehicle for students to reflect on what it takes to bridge cultural differences – Beedie attracts a diverse mix of domestic and foreign students – and handle the kind of differences that crop up in a corporate environment. For example, within each group, marketing-focused students have to win over their accounting colleagues on spending priorities for the limited budget.

Still, concedes Ms. Jones, some students resist what they discount as "touchy, feely stuff" taught in a business school.

But that ability to listen, communicate effectively and work out conflicts is what employers are looking for in new hires, she says, citing a recent Beedie survey of local employers. "We expected them [employers] to identify oral and written skills," she says. "But they also said they want graduates with good interpersonal skills who work well with other people."

For bookstore manager Mikhail Dzuba, making his retail operations available to business students as a living laboratory paid dividends. "They give us real-life feedback on what the marketplace wants and how we can amend the line of products to be better down the road," he says, such as redesigning a T-shirt or a binder to boost their appeal to customers.

Based on the project's success to date, Beedie's Dr. Gemino hopes to offer a similar experience to incoming high school graduates.

"We think it is super important to be at the very front, so that students learn that not everyone is like me," he says.

Business school honours former banker

For its annual business leader award, the Ivey Business School at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont., has named former Royal Bank of Canada chief executive officer Gord Nixon.

The Ivey award will be presented at an event in October, with proceeds going to student scholarships and Ivey's new building. Mr. Nixon led Canada's biggest bank from 2001 through 2014.

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