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    AUM Rhea Ingram Venessa Funches

    A Bigger Business Picture

    Auburn University at Montgomery Introduces New Path

    Summer 2015
    By David Zaslawsky    
    Photography by Robert Fouts

    It may seem basic, but an integrated curriculum at Auburn University at Montgomery’s College of Business is a novel approach without another model in the state and perhaps just one or two in the Southeast. In August, AUM College of Business students will learn how one aspect of a company affects other aspects, and will eventually gain a broader understanding of business, problem solving and decision-making.

    There will be some new courses; fewer credit hours needed for an undergraduate degree; and new teaching methods; and it comes with a stamp of approval from the business community that told AUM officials what they need in graduates.

    One of those skill set gaps was proficiency in technology, and in particular, Excel and Access, a Microsoft database. “I think the problem was we assumed that the younger crowd could use these software (applications), but there was a big gap in what employers expected …” said Rhea Ingram, dean of AUM College of Business.

    Being able to find data and analyze it was a concern voiced by the business community, according to Venessa Funches, associate dean of undergraduate programs for the AUM College of Business.

    The response is a Microsoft IT Academy in the fall.

    Businesses requested that graduates have better communication skills and professionalism skills. AUM is addressing those areas through its Office of Student Engagement and Success, which focuses on extra-curricular activities of professional development and includes ethics training.

    It’s about turning out more polished graduates who know how to act in professional settings, and that includes luncheon etiquette. It’s about developing the whole person, and for Funches, that translates into her stick-person analogy, with integrated knowledge being the brain area; ethics, the heart; community service, the arms; and professional development as the legs.

    “You want them to be effective, competent businesspeople, but you also want them to have a heart for how this affects other people,” Funches said. “Businesses now have to be concerned that customers are not just buying things they sell, but they are concerned about the social footprint.”

    There will be some new courses offered for the fall semester: managing systems and technology and data; managing organizations and people in a combined course; and moving business communication from the English department to the College of the Business.

    AUM is not only adding a few courses, but the delivery will also change beyond professors discussing more than one aspect of a business.

    The newer classrooms have tables with five chairs around them and a video board at one end. Students will hook up their electronic devices and work in a group. “Whoever hits what they call the puck – the little switch in front of them – has the screen,” AUM Chancellor John. G. Veres III said. “They are swapping back and forth the screen and working collectively in a team to solve problems because that’s the way it happens in the real world. I’m very pleased with the approach we’re taking.” He said there could be half a dozen teams in a classroom, which “encourages collaboration.”

    The undergraduate degree has been streamlined, and that means savings for students, as well as joining the workforce perhaps a semester earlier. The requirements had ballooned to 129 credits and now will be a more manageable 121 credits.

    The university is also offering a business minor with six lower-division courses this fall. “Any non-business major can take the series of six courses and get a good, broad knowledge of terminologies to help them,” Ingram said.

    In an unusual move, the undergraduates will use case studies on one company – the behemoth retailer in Arkansas – Walmart. “We’re hoping by the end, students will have seen Walmart from every aspect,” Funches said.

    “They think they know it because they go in there and shop, but let’s talk about operations; let’s talk about accounting; let’s talk about (the different areas) so you can start to see how all those things fit together and how you can’t make a decision on the floor without thinking about how are we going to get the product here and what is the cost and what’s the profit margin?”

    She envisions students discussing marketing opportunities while considering return on investment. Students will be forced to consider multiple areas. “A real businessperson doesn’t get to separate those things,” Funches said. “They all come into play.”

    Of course the integrated curriculum impacts the faculty in the same manner and changes the way they are thinking. If a professor in a marketing class is unable to answer a finance question, a finance professor will be brought into that class.

    Why Walmart? Mostly because there are plenty of resources available. As Funches said: “There is a ton of information. There are a lot of different angles we could look at.”

    Because of that abundance of Walmart data, students will need to “synthesize and analyze” the data, Ingram said. She said that, historically, pulling the information has been a weakness. “You’re pulling it from multiple sources and being able to analyze the data and seeing the bigger picture and making those decisions …” she said.

    More than 245 million customers visit Walmart’s stores in 27 countries every week and use its website in another 11 countries. Net sales for fiscal 2015 reached nearly $500 billion and the company has 2.2 million employees worldwide.

    The new integrated curriculum is a focused approach to ensure that students see the big picture instead of hoping they put the pieces together. No more guessing, hoping or assuming.

    In the future, case studies could deal with local companies and students might shadow businesspeople, with Funches even talking about internship opportunities.