Connecting the Dots

The pedagogical pendulum is swinging again, toward teaching across disciplines. As the demand for “big-picture” graduates intensifies, business schools experiment with ways to make integrated curricula work.
Connecting the Dots

In 1994, when Professor Richard Conway approached dean John Elliott of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, about a semester-long, cross-disciplinary spring course in manufacturing, both knew it would be a logistical challenge. Coordinating multiple faculty members and visiting speakers, arranging site visits to more than 20 companies, and maintaining a level of intense contact with students would require a decidedly innovative approach to education— and a great deal of effort.

There weren’t a lot of volunteers, says Conway. “In the ‘Semester in Manufacturing,’ a professor’s teaching load is concentrated in the spring, while the fall semester is spent planning activities,” he explains. “You have eight months of research time and four months of very intense teaching. A lot of my colleagues thought it was good for the school, but they didn’t want to do it themselves.”

Conway, however, jumped in wholeheartedly as the coordinator of the new program. Since 1994, the “Semester in Manufacturing” has been an unmitigated success, producing students who are often the first to be hired by corporate recruiters. As of today, the integrated program has inspired four other “Semester in…” courses, covering brand management, corporate finance, investment banking, and e-business. Students participate in site visits, during which they ask questions, explore problems, and offer advice. Fewer than 20 classes during the semester consist of traditional lecturing. Instead, students work in teams to develop business plans and solve real-life business problems.

Integrated education programs in schools across the country are catching the attention of high-level recruiters looking for graduates who have experience in putting the pieces of complex business puzzles together and presenting effective, insightful solutions. Unlike traditional lecture formats, cross-disciplinary presentations of material allow students to see how various departments in a corporation work together, and how one discipline fits into another.

They start as “tourists,” says Conway, “but after 25 site visits, they have seen many different ways of solving the same problems and have heard many managers say that theirs was the only path to truth. By the end of the semester, these students are consultants.”

The corporate call for the “new worker” of the 21st century— one who is well-versed in teamwork and connective thought processes—has compelled business schools to rethink the way they deliver education. Integrated methods are difficult to organize, require almost unrelenting attention from faculty, and can be costly. However, as the demand for such programs increases, one thing is clear: For students to think across disciplines, they must be taught across disciplines. As a result, the familiar image of a lone professor lecturing authoritatively to a passive group of students may soon be the exception rather than the rule.

Breaking Down Barriers

The new demand for students educated across disciplines is just one outcome of e-mail, the Internet, and wireless capabilities. The more companies adopt these technologies, the more employees with traditionally segregated specialties interact. And the more they interact, the more business schools may be forced to respond with curricula that answer the needs of corporations that are becoming increasingly collaborative.

Frances Engoron, a recruiter with New York City-based PriceWaterhouseCoopers, notes that she looks specifically for graduates with cross-disciplinary instruction in their backgrounds. Traditional “silo” courses may give students a grasp on a single specialty, she notes, but many corporations have outgrown the need for thorough, but narrow, knowledge of a single aspect of their operations. They require people who can look across many areas to “connect the dots,” so to speak, and create a complete picture of a problem.

“Leaders have pushed different ways of thinking,” says Engoron. “From a business and social organizational standpoint, we’ve started to break down some of the traditional barriers. Very rigid hierarchical organizations have, frankly, gone out of vogue. People didn’t particularly want to work in those organizations anymore.”

Many of the dot-coms and the successful technology-based companies started with different organizational structures, observes Engoron. The need for graduates with broad knowledge is one result of that influence.

In the late ’90s, Internet start-ups changed the way people work together, from the rank-and-file to an intellectual free-for-all in which group interaction made work almost fun. And in spite of the tech crash of March 2000, the many now-defunct dot-coms, which espoused casual, collaborative, creative working atmospheres, have indeed left their mark.


These companies, in fact, very well may have started, or at least intensified, the collaborative trends that are now so clearly painting a different landscape in business, one in which the separate colors on the palette are considered less effective than they are when blended on the canvas.

It Takes a Village

Integrated courses, such as the “Semester in…” programs offered at Cornell University, have counterparts throughout the world. Other programs, such as the integrated EMBA program at Villanova University in Villanova, Pennsylvania, and the integrated BBA program offered at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, are based on a similar tenet: It truly does take a village of professors and business leaders to raise a business school graduate.

But better yet, in an integrated approach, students often develop the skills and insight to “raise” themselves, says Professor Jim Bradley, who succeeded Professor Conway in Cornell’s program. “It is amazing that, even with an experienced faculty, students will come up with perspectives or approaches to a problem that the faculty haven’t thought of before,” he observes.

And not only are faculty members learning from students; they also are learning more from each other than is customary in a silo-segregated atmosphere. The more disciplines are delivered in concert with one another, the more faculty members must work together to make that delivery as seamless as possible, benefiting from their colleagues’ expertise in the process, says Japhet S. Law, dean of the business school at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

In 1987, CUHK systematically converted its BBA curriculum from one devoted to “functional areas” to one adopting an integrated approach, Law explains. Once CUHK’s integrated program was in place, it offered a chance for faculty to work together as they never had before. This new cooperative teaching and organizational approach resulted in increased communication, more efficient administration, and, after the daunting task of planning and scheduling was complete, a reduced teaching load.

“The integrated approach has enhanced the internal communication among members of different departments. Administrative tasks, such as admission talks and course registration, can be centralized,” explains Law. “And, generally, the resources that the faculty have invested in the operation of the integrated BBA program have been reduced and are more efficiently used.”

Not that adopting such a system is easy, says Law. Occasional faculty meetings turn into fullfledged team-teaching sessions under an integrated system, which in turn take a great deal of planning and teamwork on the part of participating faculty members. Many faculty members were overwhelmed by the planning and interaction that an integrated approach requires. In the end, some faculty will be eager to change, some will be reluctant to change, and some may refuse to change at all.

But once an integrated curriculum is in place, says Law, its advantages are two-fold. Not only does it encourage students to think across boundaries, it also enhances their problem solving abilities. “The change better reflects our teaching philosophy that we are not simply teaching our undergraduates technical skills,” Law concludes. “Rather, we are training them in conceptual and analytical skills that will help them make better business decisions.”

To be sure, corporations require employees who can solve “complex, cross-functional problems,” maintain professors Stephen A. Stumpf and Walter G. Tymon Jr. In a paper about Villanova University’s integrated approach to its EMBA program, Stumpf and Tymon contend that workers must be able to use a diverse range of communication technologies and understand a variety of knowledge to be effective in the marketplace.

Villanova’s EMBA program revolves around five “modules,” which center on themes such as integrating business processes, decision-making, management, leadership, and strategies for a changing environment. Students learn traditional subject matter—such as ethics, negotiations, and accounting—as they relate to the whole of the business model of a fictitious company called Foodcorp. In the next decade, the ability to relate the parts of a problem or issue to a whole business or industry will be an increasingly essential component to an employee’s resume, especially for executives, says Stumpf.

“Yes, some employers want MBA students who have concentrated on a set of focused courses, but rarely in the EMBA market,” says Stumpf. “EMBA sponsors tend to want the university to broaden their employees, not specialize them.”

A Big-Picture Perspective

The benefits of an integrated educational program are clear, say its champions. However, the costs to a business school are considerable. The cost-versus-benefit ratio of integration is one that administrators are studying with a cautious eye.

“There is a cost in terms of resources,” explains Bradley of Cornell. “It takes more faculty members to run these courses. In terms of our program, it takes time to set up 20 plant visits, organize buses, and arrange schedules.”

Resource allocation and curriculum flexibility are both downsides to an integrated approach, agrees Law of CUHK. Both must be addressed in the planning stages. “Here, the majority of funding allocated to departments is based on student numbers. Hence, departments are sometimes competing with each other for student numbers,” Law explains.

In addition, although students with cross-disciplinary experience often outperform their more specialized counterparts in competitions, and are readily hired after their education is complete, there is another piece of the puzzle to consider. Business schools are treading carefully, fearing that following the trend toward integration too completely may leave students’ understanding of individual topics lacking.

Before schools jump on the integrated bandwagon, they must consider whether a conversion to cross-disciplinary approaches, at the expense of functional specialization, may produce students big on perspective but small in their attention to detail. Students who follow a broad-based curriculum, and so, lack affiliation with a single department might suffer what Law terms “minor identity crises.”

In the end, teaching—and learning—across disciplines should not mean sacrificing specialized knowledge, believes Stumpf, but enhancing it. “Offering an ‘integrated’ program does not mean that specific topics are not covered. What it means to us is that when you cover a specific topic, you do it in such a way that it relates to what will follow and links to what has come before.”

“All of us face a marketplace in which students want to prepare for their careers effectively, and recruiters want to bring people into their organizations who pass the test,” observes Elliott of Cornell. “We all face this historic pendulum swing between an intellectual, academic approach to knowledge and an applied, practice-based approach to knowledge. We’re at a point where we would like to think we are effectively integrating the two.”

Addressing concerns and walking a tightrope between functional silos and cross-disciplinary methods are part and parcel of building an effective integrated program, one that produces the students that will meet the needs of employers. The next few years, administrators believe, will tell just how well business schools manage to prepare students for what promise to be wide-ranging careers in complex, ever-changing models of business.