Despite a team member needing to bow out with days to go, Okanagan College students Adrianna Knuth and Christie Klein managed to wow judges to take the top prize at the HRC West 2017 case-study competition.
The third partner had to leave due to a family emergency just two days before the March 3 and 4 event at Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s Richmond, B.C., campus.
“It was definitely a little bit stressful because normally when we do a case study in class, we will have weeks to prepare,” said Klein, who is also an HR assistant at the City of Kelowna. “It drove us harder to succeed because we knew that we were the underdogs.”
“We were both already on the same page mentally; we didn’t have to collaborate as much,” said Knuth, who is completing a three-year bachelor of business administration honours degree at Okanagan College in Kelowna, B.C. “I am sure the bigger teams, when they had four people, they really segregated who did what, but we didn’t have that luxury.”
The fourth annual event — which began as the Human Resources Institute of Alberta (HRIA) Challenge and has been held in Alberta each of the first three years — was co-sponsored by the Chartered Professionals in Human Resources of British Columbia and Yukon (CPHR BC & YK) and the HRIA.
For this year’s happening, 15 HR professionals acted as judges for the 15 teams.
“The goal is to allow (students) to gain some real-world HR knowledge but also to learn from senior professionals and to connect with one another, their peers, and with HR professionals, and learn about membership with HR organizations and our designation,” said Kelly Aslanowicz, organizer and senior manager, business development at CPHR BC & YK in Vancouver.
“There was a need to engage HR students in some real, practical learning and also to allow them opportunities to network.”
During the competition, students were given an HR case study. They were required to analyze it and present solutions to judges. First-place winners received $1,500, while second- and third-place contestants received $1,000 and $800 respectively. Fourth-place teams had the $575 cost of entry returned.
“In the competition, basically, they get locked in a room for three hours; they get a case they have never seen before, and emerge with a presentation that they then immediately deliver,” said Roger Wheeler, professor at the Okanagan School of Business.
The costs or benefits of the plan need to be identified, and participants need to be prepared for critique from the judges.
Typically, teams practise once per week for one month prior to the competition, he said.
Coaches act as judges during the practice sessions, but students have a “full-course load, they have their own schedule and challenges” meaning squeezing in practice time can be tight.
The newly constituted team of Klein and Knuth — with team name “Triumph Consulting” — managed to complete one pre-event practice session.
“It gave them the opportunity to attempt with two people what they had previously done with three, so at least they had that one practice on their own, which was helpful,” said Wheeler.
And during the first hour of the competition, the two were feeling “really good, we were ahead of everything,” said Knuth. “But then the last half-hour came and we realized that we needed to do financials and risk mitigation, and we ended up having to rush through it really quickly.”
Success was achieved this time because of Klein and Knuth’s talent and ability, said Wheeler.
“It’s almost like they analyzed the case differently than a lot of the other students. They seemed to be able to identify the key problems to be dealt with,” he said. “Considering that they’re still students, they spoke with a lot of confidence about what it’s going to take to fix the problem they were presented with.”
The case study centred on an engineering firm that was having trouble with turnover among millennials.
“Adrianna and Christie were able to identify solutions that were feasible, and I am very proud of them for being able to do that without having a lot of experience in the workplace: I think that’s what’s special about those two,” said Wheeler.
By speaking and presenting in front of working HR professionals, the experience was “invaluable,” said Wheeler. “For students leaving school with that kind of experiences, it puts them in a much better position to succeed in the workplace.”
“It’s quite intimidating for a student to have to get up in front of a large audience in the first place and, secondly, a panel of judges that they know have tons of industry experience and convince them that their solution is a good one,” he said. “It gives top students a chance to flex their muscles — so to speak — because it puts them head-to-head with other very good students, very good coaches from other very good schools, and it gives them a chance to see what they can really do.”
Okanagan has competed since the second event in 2015 (when the name was change to HRC West) and it has progressed from third place, to second place, to taking top honours this time.
Okanagan’s teaching method focuses students in a tactical way, which helped with the competition, said Knuth.
“I realized that the way our school prepares us, we stand out quite a bit from others because we are thinking at a strategic level, whereas a lot of our competitors were taking the case more literally,” she said.
Moving the competition to British Columbia helped expand HRC West’s reach and scope, said Aslanowicz. In 2016, 10 schools participated.
“It was really exciting to be able to engage our academic partners that may not have participated in the past,” she said.
It truly seems to be growing as a premiere western Canadian HR competition, said Wheeler. “The more competition opportunities for students, the better.”
For the first time, HRC West allowed access to a computer. However, participants were not allowed to communicate with anyone outside: Cellphones were surrendered to organizers. Teams were also instructed not to use the cut-and-paste function or to perform any downloads.
“In past years, they were allowed no Internet access whatsoever,” said Aslanowicz. “We realized that HR professionals today use the Internet all the time when facing a challenge. It seemed impractical to block the students from it.”
But most students didn’t much take advantage of the web, said Aslanowicz.
“They relied on their own creativity, and their own learning.”
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