Next-Generation Education

Business schools are reinventing their programs, going beyond 20th-century mindsets to teach 21st-century skill sets.
Next-Generation Education

The current shift in the world’s collective fortune has underscored the need for new approaches in the business classroom. However, long before a financial tsunami hit the global economy, many schools were already in the process of reinventing their approaches to business education.

“We looked at the world around us and saw that it was demanding different skills,” says Alison Davis-Blake, dean of the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management in Minneapolis. “Our students were telling us, ‘We can do more.’”

Just what does “more” mean to 21st-century business education? For the business schools profiled here, it means designing degree programs that are more flexible, integrated, and experiential. It means exposing undergraduates to business practices earlier than ever. It means taking once-optional educational experiences—such as international study, consulting, and internships—and making them mandatory for every student.

And it means emphasizing a wider range of skills than 20th-century business programs ever addressed, including good judgment, personal awareness, and personal initiative. In the process, professors aren’t just reinventing what they teach. They’re changing how they think—about teaching, about learning, and about what’s essential for the business curriculum.

Cultivating Personal Awareness

Rotterdam adds leadership development and network analysis to its 12-month MBA.

Students are coming to the MBA program at Erasmus University’s Rotterdam School of Management in The Netherlands with more work, travel, and technological experience than ever before. What they now want from their business degree programs is a greater awareness of their potential as leaders and their impact on society, says Dianne Bevelander, associate dean of MBA programs. To give students that understanding, RSM has made ongoing 360-degree feedback and personal network analysis integral parts of its 12-month MBA.

The school now divides students in the 12-month MBA into teams, which provide each member with 360-degree feedback at the beginning, middle, and end of the program. Each time they receive feedback, students write an essay on what they have learned and how they will use this information in the future.

At the same time, faculty help students map out and analyze their personal networks, so that they can discover how they’re connected to others. Students learn whether they act as network hubs, who have ongoing connections with many people; gatekeepers, who communicate information from one group to another; or pulse takers, who know what’s happening throughout the network.

“To become trusted members of their personal networks, students must learn to be all three,” says Bevelander. “They must learn to be aware of their weaknesses and strengths and take advantage of different perspectives.”

Through this process, a student might learn that she is connected primarily to other women and needs to expand her network to include more male contacts. Another might discover that the people he knows aren’t well-connected themselves, which limits his own sphere of influence. A supervisor might see that he has regular contact with only some of his direct reports and that he needs to reach out to everyone if he is to stay informed.

The more diverse, dense, intercultural, and interconnected students’ networks are, the more they’ll be able to accomplish, says Bevelander. Moreover, she adds, RSM’s revised program will help students understand themselves and the complex contexts in which they work. “Our students must learn how to take their political, geographical, and cultural contexts into account if they are to inspire, motivate, and lead.”

Instilling Good Judgment

Fox puts consulting projects at the center of its MBA curriculum.

Many schools offer students the opportunity to complete consulting projects. Temple University’s Fox School of Business in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, has made its Enterprise Management Consulting (EMC) practice the cornerstone of its entire MBA curriculum.

The Fox School started a pilot of EMC in 2000 for just one MBA program. In 2008, the school made EMC a requirement for all MBA students, including those in its full-time, part-time, international, and online programs.

During the four-month, six-credit course, student teams complete consulting projects for companies. The projects range from nonprofit grant proposals to strategic plans for high-tech startups. Students meet twice a week for discussions and project work; they also travel to visit company representatives on-site for interviews and information gathering. Once they complete their research, students present their final recommendations to their clients.

EMC is “like a medical residency,” says T.L. Hill, managing director of the EMC program and assistant professor of general and strategic management. “Working in a supervised environment, students apply all the theory they’ve been learning to real cases where all the parts are moving.”

Faculty and business practitioners work together to oversee and advise student teams. The most challenging aspect of the EMC program is finding instructors who are comfortable linking theory to practice, says Hill. He seeks out faculty with consulting experience and practitioners with academic experience to take part in EMC.

“Our students must learn how to take their political, geographical, and cultural contexts into account if they are to inspire, motivate, and lead.”
—Dianne Bevelander, Erasmus University

In one EMC project, students helped a medical supply company refine its sales pitch and recommended that it present itself to hospitals as a trusted advisor rather than as a service provider. Another team wrote a five-year strategic plan for growth for the Temple Medical School, while another developed a financial model for a network of urban charter schools.

Textbooks can take students only so far, says Hill. By making EMC mandatory for all Fox MBAs, he adds, the school ensures that its graduates can translate textbook theories into real-world action and develop the good judgment they’ll need to be leaders.

Making Experience Essential

UVic Business turns to its Experiential Learning Officer to bring the real world into the classroom.

Experiential learning has become a cornerstone of education at many business schools, but some faculty still may be uncertain how to integrate it into their courses. To dispel that uncertainty, the University of Victoria’s Faculty of Business in British Columbia, Canada, hired its first Experiential Learning Officer in 2006. The newest ELO, Jennifer Gill, brought her background in curricular design to UVic when she took the job in 2008.

If students become active and engaged lifelong learners, they’ll become better leaders and decision makers.
—T.L. Hill, Temple University

During their junior and senior years, undergraduate students at UVic Business must complete three paid work experiences, or “co-ops,” which last three to four months each. In between their co-ops, students return to the classroom for academic terms.

Gill’s job is to help faculty integrate students’ co-op experiences into their courses. Before classes begin, Gill gives each professor a list of students and their co-op job descriptions, and invites faculty to visit students at their work sites midway through their co-ops.

“That way, if a professor knows he’ll be talking about strategy, he can ask a student in his course who has worked for a strategic planner in her last co-op to talk about the topic,” she says. Gill also has created a Blackboard-based repository of teaching techniques, so that professors can learn from other faculty members’ best ideas.

Professors have embraced UVic’s emphasis on experiential learning. Many faculty post weekly questions to students on the school’s Blackboard system, asking them to relate course concepts to their co-op work assignments.

One professor even asked his students to develop a blog that discussed the structures of their co-op organizations.

Gill works with students as much as faculty. She asks them to write reports about their co-ops and speaks with them regularly about ways they can highlight those experiences in their classes.

It excites students to be able to contribute so much to their own educational experience, Gill says. That excitement makes it even easier for faculty to create seamless connections between their students’ working and educational lives.

“We recognize that experiential learning has incredible value,” says Gill. “If we want to facilitate best practices in experiential learning, we must put into place the resources to make it happen.”

Emphasizing Early Exposure

The Carlson School revises its curriculum to immerse undergraduates in business topics.

Before its new undergraduate curriculum was put into place last year, the Carlson School’s program followed a traditional format that was “low in structure and low in intensity,” says its dean Alison Davis-Blake. Undergraduates were not admitted to Carlson until their junior years. Before that, they focused on completing their liberal arts requirements.

Starting in 2008, however, the school began to admit students as freshmen, so that they can be exposed as early as possible to an expanded set of courses and requirements. The changes were made to give undergraduates more integrated and immersive educational experiences, says Davis-Blake.

“If a student is majoring in marketing and consumer behavior, we want him to be able to plan ahead and take his marketing course with a course in social psychology,” she says. “We want to create more synergy in the curriculum.”

Freshmen now must take a course in contemporary business management. As sophomores, students take four “immersion core” courses—finance, marketing, operations, and strategy—as part of a single cohort.

Carlson also has made a significant change in the area of international study. Once considered an elective, international study is now mandatory for Carlson undergraduates, who must take a trip abroad between their sophomore and senior years.

Because students come to the college at different levels of “international readiness,” says Davis-Blake, the school offers a range of travel options. Novice travelers can choose to take two-week trips abroad to study accounting in Argentina, human resources in Australia, global entrepreneurship in China, environmental impact in Costa Rica, or corporate strategy in Central and Eastern Europe. Students more comfortable with international travel can spend summers or semesters abroad studying at partner universities. In all cases, the Carlson School provides scholarships, need-based aid, and supplemental loans to help students fund the trips.

As seniors, students participate in an experiential capstone experience to bring together all they’ve learned. Each capstone is delivered as part of a student’s major. For example, entrepreneurial studies majors take a yearlong capstone course that helps students develop and launch a new business. Nonprofit/public sector majors take a service-based capstone course in which they serve as strategic consultants to local nonprofits.

The Carlson School’s new curriculum now exposes its undergraduates to business realities—earlier and more often, says Davis-Blake. Moreover, the added experiences allow students and faculty alike to bring a wealth of information back to the school from local industry and global businesses.

“Our students and faculty are now out in the world sensing the business climate in real time, so our courses can evolve on a real-time basis,” says Davis-Blake. “That makes our school more flexible, innovative, and responsive than we’ve ever been before.”

Inspiring Lifelong Learning

As business schools continue to reinvent their courses, many are going beyond teaching “what” students should know to teaching them “how” to know it. The goal is to help them “learn how to learn,” says Hill of the Fox School.

“Ultimately, the basics of what we teach today will change tomorrow,” Hill argues. “We need to teach our students to be curious. If students become active and engaged lifelong learners, they’ll become better leaders and decision makers.”

It may be impossible for business schools to predict what the future will bring. But business schools can prepare students to handle each new challenge as it comes, say these educators. They can do so by teaching students self-sufficiency, creativity, curiosity, and courage—skills that will ensure that students continue to learn and lead throughout their careers.

Mary Beth Marrs is assistant dean of undergraduate programs and strategic initiatives at the University of Missouri’s Trulaske College of Business in Columbia.