honesty, mercilessness, robustness, expertise – reflections on postgraduate e-commerce practicums

In Business Education, E-commerce, Entrepreneurship on August 28, 2009 at 8:53 pm
DCU MSc in Ecommerce Practicum Teams 2008-09

DCU MSc in Ecommerce Practicum Teams 2008-09

Finally, all the results for another year in DCU Business School are committed and there is a small window of time to reflect on the previous year before the onslaught begins again.

This year ended with presentations on practicums from the MSc in Ecommerce class. The aim of the practicum is to expose the student to some real-world problem in the ecommerce area in order to allow the theoretical work covered in the earlier modules, to be put into practice. The deliverable is often some form of business plan. The choice of content for the practicum is at the discretion of the students but must however be practical in nature and have a technical and entrepreneurial component. 

A couple of observations. Firstly, for those educators or learners considering a practicum, the choice of faculty advisor is essential. We use two, a business and a technical advisor. While faculty can often advise students in relation to dissertations or more formal academic research, few have the experience (or interest) in supporting the development of robust and potentially successful business plans. Successful practicums, much like business plans, benefit from robust, honest and merciless challenges by advisors with some subject matter expertise. In e-commerce, this means from both a technical and business perspective.  If you can’t tick 2-3 of these four boxes, find a new advisor.

Secondly, the students’ own ideas are often more interesting than company ideas. However, it is easy for students to get bedazzled by the opportunity to work with a leading brand and to subordinate their own ideas due to lack of confidence or the perception of some advantage to be gained through company interaction. While ideas and support from companies are welcome,  we don’t, typically, encourage company-driven projects as these often rely on tight company involvement which may not be forthcoming or dominates the project. There is a freedom in developing your own business ideas that rarely is achieved or available in a company-sponsored project. In this way, a sponsored project can be a poisoned chalice.

Thirdly, it takes time and this is an area we could improve upon. 2-3 months is not enough. It seems that an ideal gestation period is 6 months or more. In fact, the most interesting discussions that I have had with students are the second or third iteration of a business idea after robust debate. Unfortunately, this is often after the practicum when deadlines have passed and the tension caused by assessment no longer lurks in the shadows. While such iteration and debate  can be frustrating and emotional for all involved, unlike a dissertation, successful practicums need passion. If you can’t get passionate about an idea, why would you expect someone else to?

Fourthly, you need numbers.  If your numbers look too good to believe, they probably are. Whether it is market research or financials – at some point in time, the numbers will be weighed and measured, don’t be caught wanting.

Finally, there are enough ideas for everyone. As each student group should have their own projects, each group is only competing against themselves. Students should be encouraged to share their learning and ideas on projects as early as possible. International students may offer insights or market potential that can often be overlooked and often have work experience or are working and so can identify real problems to be solved with with some authority. Insist in the following – no lies, no surprises and if someone is poisoning a group, move them as early as possible. Regarding poisonous team members, look to the causes and not the symptoms – sometimes the “negative” team member is right.

So what about this year’s projects? Two groups pursued projects with IBM on Green Sigma. While well executed, these groups found it hard to bring their project to a higher level without substantial access to IBM personnel and research. Being based on an existing service also provided challenges in terms of originality.

A number of groups looked at the issue of identity fraud and transaction authentication. One group investigated using secure text messaging for credit card transaction authentication whilst another wanted to do away with credit cards altogether and use fingerprint authentication. Whilst the former make an existing process possibly more efficient, the latter seeks to transform – no more plastic so eco-friendly too!

One of my favourite business proposals was SocioFuturePaths – a specialist social media consultancy targetting the travel industry. Their practicum output included an iPhone App for finding tourist sites (including pubs, restaurants etc) and a web service for enhancing transport booking systems using Facebook Connect. As well as developing real applications, there analysis was sound – so called “social media experts” could too often be retitled “self-proclaimed social media experts”. Their sectoral focus and plan based on something that they are immersed on and were passionate about left me with optimism.

While InternationalStudentAdvantage were graphically-challenged, they were the one of the few groups that identified a real customer need, a solution and generated revenues and interested from future customers. Their concept extended the successful student advantage discount site in the US by providing useful information based on key international student events/activities e.g. finding a course, applying, getting English language competence, getting a loan, getting accommodation, getting a bank account – you get the idea. What was also impressed and remarked upon was that the group was a truly international group – they were like the Borg and comprised students from at least three continents.

A number of projects were based on licensing or distributing existing technologies in Ireland for existing or new purposes. The interesting ones included telecare and automated license plate recognition applications. While some of these projects had some intrinsic merit, Ireland is a small market. My main concern was that feasibility often depended on securing “sole and exclusive territorial rights” and success would largely depend on not only being low cost but also different than existing solutions. Businesses based only on device distribution in a country the size of Ireland can provide a good living for one person and are a shortcut to long term debt for four. Notwithstanding this, the ideas do have merit in larger countries with different demographics or for other purposes. With more scrutiny, these ideas may yet be realisable.

Despite these ideas, a question universities need to address is one of IPR and value-add. Few projects progress to commercialisation. This may be for a multitude of reasons – student confidence, the lure of jobs in industry, travel,  funding, university support, IP ownership…. In the current economic conditions, this may change. I hope it does.

  1. Hi Theo, love to hear all of the practicum ideas, it is a great learning opportunity for all students and love the way it encourages real entrepreneurial thoughts. It was by far the best experience I had in my time at on the Msc.E-commerce course. It would be fantastic to see more of the ideas go on to be a commercial success and see DCU become a silicon valley type of environment some day in the near future

  2. […] world and this is often the purest form of such engagement we have but it is not without risks (see…). The choice of academic dissertation or group practicum represents the underlying tension in any […]

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