Rehearsing for the Real World
Young Entrepreneurs Can Find a Helping Hand in Uniforce, Austria’s International Business Network
It’s the last days of February 2007. I’m sitting at a table in Rochus, a semi-pretentious café next to Rochus Markt in Vienna’s third district. Outside the enormous windows the weather is acting in the slightly schizophrenic manner that has been the hallmark of this winter season. Short periods of sunshine interrupted by spurts of heavy rain.
The Real World. I sigh and look up.
Across the table from me sits Fabian Lebersorger and Anna Kraft, two vivacious students in their early twenties, and, as it were, two of the newest members of Uniforce Junior Enterprise, our topic of conversation.
Like a professional wrestling tag-team Fabian and Anna, the company’s PR department, are enthusiastically filling me in on the organisation’s history, goals and activities.
Uniforce was founded in 1989 as the first Austrian representative of an international network of Junior Enterprises. This network – composed purely of students – is dedicated to using academic tools to consult and advise the business community. Since its inception Uniforce has flourished into an effective consultancy and one of the most active members of the network, both on a national and international level.
Their website "product" list includes advice on and implementation of a 360o Feedback evaluation system. That’s interesting. 360o Feedback has in the last couple of years been touted in management literature as THE human resources tool for evaluating your employees. It involves collecting feedback from all the employee’s points of contact to gather a full and balanced picture of his or her performance.
360o Feedback is probably the most complete performance evaluation tool on the market today. Unfortunately, and to the chagrin HR managers who implemented it, it is also extremely time consuming for all parties involved.
I quickly decide to test the young sprogs belief in their own products and pour out my spiel regarding the 360∞ feedback, laying it on thick that this product is one that’s good on paper, but not in reality.
Fabian immediately rises to the occasion
"Yes, it is time consuming, but we implemented it in our own company and the insight gained by the process by far outstrips the time lost. For example…." After nodding enthusiastically for the next five minutes I am completely ready to implement 360∞ in my own company.Except – of course – I don’t have one.
So having unsuccessfully tried to bloody their noses early on, I quietly segue into inquisitive reporter mode. So who are they?
Anna gracefully cuts in to answer.
"In many ways we mirror real world consultancies, because we have members from almost all realms of academia, ranging from Theatre, Film and Media studies, to pure Business majors, like Fabian. And even though most of our associates have some academic business background, the diversity in the organization ensures that we get a wide variety of views on any project, which again enables us to come up with innovative and competitive solutions for our clients."
Their recruiting they do through an assessment centre, a process which takes place twice a year. Anyone can apply by sending in their CV and a motivation letter. Following the application process, they pick a number of candidates to attend the assessment centre, usually eight to twelve. Then there’s a panel interview.
When both of these phases have been concluded, the strongest candidates are picked.
And how many is that?
"We have no set number. We simply pick the ones we felt made a strong showing."
Well, that explains how you find them. But an assessment and an interview hardly tells you if these people will really fit in the team and perform as promised?
"I’m glad you asked that" Fabian interjects "After the actual recruiting there’s a probation period, or trial phase, if you will, which lasts approximately two months, where the new associate has to take on an internal project by themselves. At the completion of the project it has to be presented to the core team, which then makes the final decision if the candidate attains full membership."
If you take on an unspecified number of new members twice a year there must be some kind of attrition mechanism.
"There is no mechanism per se, no one is really forced to leave, but there is an implicit understanding that most people stay for two, or three semesters and then move on." So that’s it? Wam Bam, thank you ma’am?
"Of course not! All former members become of part of the alumni network, which is in close contact with the organization and is available to give advice, or to help capture new business."
Ah, yes the business, how do you find clients? "Aside from referrals from alumni and other initiatives, such as fairs, 75% of our clients are returning customers."
So obviously people are happy with the job they are doing. But what are their real selling points? Why would a big companies choose to come to them rather than established management consultants?
They look thoughtful for a moment before answering in the clipped efficient manner to which I have become accustomed throughout the interview.
Price, Anna tells me, is probably their main selling point. For the level of quality and innovation they deliver the price is very reasonable. She ventures further that for the same level of work that someone would obtain from a professional consultancy, Uniforce is quite a bit cheaper.
But they also have other strengths:
In many ways, they bring pure untainted book knowledge to the table, as well as a fresh point of view different from that of more experienced consultants.
Being students running a business in which they have a personal stake also offers different synergies to those a traditional consultancy might offer.
But the biggest question still remains -- which is why they are doing it to begin with. So much work for what might be deemed little reward. You have to admit, seling the company is all good and well, but what has the experience done for them personally? Are they gaining any new experience?
Are they really learning anything?
"Yes, absolutely!" They respond immediately, almost in unison.
"The learning curve is very steep" Fabian continues. "I mean it’s a great opportunity to escape the world of pure theory to garner some real life experience and responsibility."
"Where else do you get this kind of experience while still a student?" Anna interjects.
Your role as a member of Uniforce is two sided: First you have a role as a consultant on external projects, and secondly you have an internal function.
Anna and Fabian, for example are the company’s Public Relations managers, others again are the IT managers, finance and so on.
And the external consulting? When they decide to take on a project, a project leader is chosen, who then chooses two team members to work with him or her on the project. However, all stay up to date through weekly team meetings where all current projects are discussed, as well as internal issues.
All this sounds very time consuming. How much time do they spend per week with Uniforce? "Anywhere from two hours a week during exams to 40 hours a week when we are in the middle of a project. On average, about 15 hours a week." So 15 hours a week on top of your studies, that doesn’t leave too much time for a social life, they agree. But it’s not forever and they seem to enjoy the time they spend with each other.
"The gains," they promise, "by far outweigh the imposition."