New MBAs joining the workforce are expected to have excellent functional skills, the know-how to apply them in the real world, and a basic understanding of the organization as a whole. That’s why many b-schools today emphasize integration, relevance, and immediacy in their coursework. But it’s challenging to develop a curriculum that teaches students how a business decision resonates throughout the whole organization and what its implications might be in the global marketplace.
At Georgia State University’s J. Mack Robinson College of Business in Atlanta, we have designed an introductory MBA course that takes current real-world cases from across the globe and examines them from a cross-disciplinary perspective. The new cornerstone core course was instituted after a steering committee determined that our MBA students weren’t taking an integrated business course until fairly late in their studies. We realized that if, at the very beginning of the curriculum, our students understood how a firm functions across its lifetime, they would have context for the specific disciplines they would study in the heart of the MBA program. We also believed that it was critical for such a course to be absolutely up-to-date and to teach students a global perspective.
With that in mind, a group of faculty created “Managing in the Global Economy,” which became mandatory for all entering MBA students. Using current periodicals, recent case studies, and other reading material, the course was designed to help students understand the complexity of international business and the way the various business functions interconnect. The goal was to prepare them for the fast-paced world of today’s global business.
Laying the Groundwork
The course concept was built around key business activities and how they change as a firm progresses through its life. Most businesses go through four major life cycle changes: start-up and initial growth, the fight for pole positions, competition in mature markets, and renewal in declining industries. We wanted to examine this cycle in the context of five core business activities: identifying markets, industries, and competitive advantages; finding and retaining customers; organizing and using cash and capital; integrating systems into organizations; and developing relationships among managers and employees. These concepts collapsed into an easily communicated matrix that we used to anchor the topics of this course, as shown in the accompanying graphic.
Team-taught courses often fail because each instructor brings a different style and approach to the material. In those cases, silos are replicated rather than integrated.
We decided that 12 out of the semester’s 15 class sessions should be devoted the course material, covering a different cell of the matrix in each class. For instance, one week we planned to consider the best ways to find customers during the start-up phase, and another week we planned to examine how companies develop relationships in a declining market. This left a few class times for exams and special sessions.
The dean’s office knew that selecting faculty to deliver the course was critical. The instructors had to be a diverse but experienced group, drawn from core faculty at all different academic ranks, to avoid the idea that the course was being taught by rookies or adjunct instructors. Thus, as the first team assembled to teach “Managing in the Global Economy,” we represented a range of knowledge and experience. Bill Bogner and Susan Houghton came from the department of managerial sciences, Chris Lemley from marketing, and Alfred Mettler from finance. Each of us had been with the college for at least six years, and two were members of the steering committee.
Although the four of us continue to be the primary instructors, we anticipate that we ultimately will need six to eight faculty to teach the course. As long as we draw faculty from many different departments, no department will ever “own” the course, and it will be truly integrative. For the same reason, direct control of the class remains with the MBA steering committee and the associate dean for graduate programs.
As the instructors, we wanted to avoid a “team-teaching” approach, which many schools adopt for their cornerstone courses. Team-taught courses often fail because each instructor brings a different style and approach to the material. In those cases, silos are replicated rather than integrated. Instead, we decided that each of us would teach all sessions of our assigned section, regardless of topic. In that way, we not only would standardize our approach to the course, but we also would truly integrate our presentation of the material. Of course, that meant each of us would have to get up to speed on all areas of the class; and, as expected, this required us to invest an enormous amount of time prepping ourselves for teaching the course.
The Spontaneous Curriculum
Once the faculty was in place, our next challenge was finding suitable course material. But when we analyzed textbooks, cases, and media databases, it became clear that the course could not take a traditional textbook approach. Instead, it would have to be based on current events and real-world examples, which meant much of the material would have to be spontaneously generated.
To determine which readings and cases to use, we all suggested possibilities from our own fields and outlined a teaching plan for that module. If the group agreed, the material was included in the syllabus. As needed, we supplemented cases in which we had expertise with cases and readings suggested by colleagues with expertise in other departments, such as CIS, real estate, and risk management.
As might be expected, the initial learning curve was very steep, and the process of putting the final course together was intensive. But slowly, a reading list took shape. Thomas Friedman’s book on globalization, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, was an immediate choice for focusing on global issues. We also decided to have students read original classics from gurus such as Peter Drucker and Michael Porter, rather than textbooks interpreting their observations. We added up-to-date articles from publications such as The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, and CEO Magazine to help students apply the concepts they were learning to current situations.
It was soon clear that The Lexus and the Olive Tree would serve as a major thread throughout the course. Because so many of its examples are international in nature, it provided an easy bridge to the global business articles we culled from current business publications. Thus, from week to week, we cross-referenced the Friedman book with current cases, readings, and articles, which helped to bring continuity to the course.
The matrix also guaranteed continuity; but, in addition, we wanted a cohesive framework embedded across all modules. We settled on the idea of “delivering value across multiple stakeholders in a firm, while understanding their varied interests and varied geographical locations in a globalized business world.”
Once we determined content, we looked at delivery. We set up a course Web site at www.study.net so students could download required cases and reading materials. We also decided to use the case method in class so students could exercise their new understanding to solve problems in organizations. We determined that a significant part of students’ evaluations would be based on their individual contributions in class; and that, as part of their grade, they had to attend at least one session of the college’s “Atlanta Business Speaker Series.” In addition, we decided that all instructors should develop their own exams so they could be certain students were being tested on material they had emphasized.
Once the first classes started, we continued to fine-tune. The four of us met every week for two hours to debrief each other about previous classes, analyzing what went well and what could be improved for the following semester. Then we extensively discussed the content of the next class and considered additional reading material from key business periodicals. Also, we developed a limited number of PowerPoint slides that could be used in class each week. We not only found these meetings valuable in terms of keeping the course on track, but in keeping ourselves engaged as academics.
Meeting the Challenge
The first sessions of “Managing in the Global Economy” were offered in fall 2004, and more than 180 students enrolled in the first six sections. Course evaluations were outstanding. One student wrote: “I was not keeping up much with what is happening in the world when I started the MBA program, and this class was an eye-opener for me. I am reading the WSJ almost on a daily basis, and I keep up with news. And the best thing is that I find it all fascinating.”
The first students to take “Managing in a Global Economy” eventually enrolled in the capstone strategy course for the MBA program. Instructors found these students are more engaged in the class and more active in pursuing the global angles to the cases discussed in the capstone course. Not only do they consider the issues in the case at hand, but they extend the implications of the decision making to other areas of the organization. In short, after finishing the introductory course, they are more deeply engaged with the problems and the solutions—just as we hoped.
We know, however, that we will need to constantly refresh the course to keep it relevant. We continue to hold weekly meetings to discuss what worked in the previous class and what might be needed in the next class. In addition, we still anticipate that we eventually will expand our roster of teachers, which will also affect the composition of the course.
Keeping the curriculum current and relevant is clearly one of the challenges facing business schools today. It is our hope that “Managing in the Global Economy” will help students expand their understanding of international business before they enter the marketplace. As another first-year MBA student told us: “For me, the most beneficial aspect of the class is the type of assignments that require us to think critically, synthesize information from a variety of sources, and learn how to make decisions based on incomplete and sometimes contradictory information. By taking this class during the first semester of my MBA program, I learn how to see things, not through a silo, but at the strategic and big-picture level.”
Nonetheless, we know that, as global business faces rapid changes, our cornerstone course must change along with it. We must constantly draw on fresh, current material from a wide variety of sources, and seek perspectives from a diverse group of faculty and students, to truly prepare our students for managing in a global economy.
Alfred Mettler is an assistant professor of finance, Bill Bogner and Susan Houghton are associate professors of managerial sciences, and Chris Lemley is a marketing instructor at Georgia State University’s J. Mack Robinson College of Business in Atlanta.