Best Practices in Curriculum Design

What you should know and how you should proceed when you’re revamping a business program.
Best Practices in Curriculum Design

Most deans and program directors believe that all business schools should take a hard look at their curricula every few years, even if they don’t do a major overhaul. “The world is changing much faster these days, and a review every five years is reasonable—as long as schools are always thinking about the relevancy of their courses and the way they’re being conducted,” says Stig Lanesskog, associate dean for MBA programs at the College of Business at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.

School representatives, as well as presenters at AACSB International’s “Redesigning the MBA” symposium (see “Re-Envisioning the MBA,” page 22), emphasize ten best practices for schools to consider when launching a redesign.

1. INVOLVE ALL STAKEHOLDERS. This includes every-one from faculty to recruiters to students to alums. Says Lanesskog, who favors getting feedback from corporate representatives, “We ask executives not only what attributes and skills they think graduates should have, but what challenges they faced the last time they brought any of our graduates into their environment.”

If current students are solicited for their opinions, they’re more likely to be enthusiastic about new courses while also feeling ownership and pride about the curriculum, notes Douglas Stayman, associate dean for MBA Programs at Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate School of Management in Ithaca, New York.

Don’t overlook the school’s professional staff, says Phillip Phan, professor and interim dean of the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School in Baltimore, Maryland. “Our career development staff has been very involved in our program development—in fact, they help teach some of the noncredit content, like negotiations, that will give students the skills they need to find jobs.

2.  MAKE FACULTY A KEY PART OF THE PROCESS. While a steering committee is likely to determine the broad outlines of the redesign, faculty will be translating specific needs into concrete courses—and teaching the new curriculum. Therefore, their input and enthusiasm is essential.

“Our committee included faculty members from each department, who discussed controversial issues with their colleagues as we went along,” says Lydia J. Price, associate dean, MBA director, and professor at the China Europe International Business School in Shanghai. The school solicited faculty input and approval at the beginning, in the middle of the redesign, and at the end, when a detailed proposal was ready. “At each stage we modified our plans in response to the suggestions of faculty and the MBA office team,” says Price.

3. MINIMIZE "FELT LOSSES." Curricular redesign proposals meet the most resistance when those most affected by the change incur costs—or “felt losses”—along the way, says David Garvin of Harvard Business School in Boston, Massachusetts. “People feel they will lose power, competence, and a sense of identity,” he says. If schools help faculty and other stakeholders see how the benefits of redesign outweigh the costs they’ll receive more enthusiastic support.

4. BENCHMARK AGAINST OTHER SCHOOLS. “We began with an extensive review of the features at other MBA programs and the recent trends in curriculum development,” says Price.  “It definitely helped us prioritize our basic needs and goals, and it helped us answer questions and reduce resistance at later stages.”

James Ellis of USC’s Marshall School of Business in Los Angeles recommends contacting schools that have recently implemented a new curriculum and even asking deans at those schools if they’d “share someone” for a couple of days to discuss the best way to make a redesign happen.

5. ALLOT SUFFICIENT RESOURCES. “It’s extremely easy to underestimate the resource requirements for redesign initiatives,” says Robert Kazanjian, vice dean for programs at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School in Atlanta, Georgia. For example, Goizueta initially understaffed a new intensive one-year consultancy course for all first-year MBAs, allotting only two part-time faculty, library staff, and several second-year MBA coaches to run it. The school has since appointed a director and assigned full-time faculty to the course.

University leadership also can underestimate how difficult and resource intensive it is to overhaul a curriculum, so it’s important for the champions of redesign to be recognized for their efforts. “At our school, faculty get teaching unit credits as a form of workload accounting,” says Phan of Johns Hopkins.

6. DEEPLY SCRUTINIZE EACH POTENTIAL CHANGE. “Before we add any course, we ask ourselves, ‘How important is it that our students sit in a class for four hours a week and learn this particular topic? Is it that critical?’” says USC’s Ellis.

7. SET A DEADLINE. CEIBS set clear deadlines for every-thing from printing brochures to launching the program, and “this kept things moving along,” says Price. “Looming deadlines and prior agreement on the basic ideas kept the faculty discussions to a reasonable length.”

8. STICK TO A BUDGET. Try to gain efficiencies in some courses to offset costs in others, Price suggests. “At CEIBS, our budget rose only slightly, and we covered the incremental costs with tuition rises and a slight increase in program size. Budgetary accountability definitely helped us gain the support of the dean.   

Mindy Storrie, director of leadership development at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, points out that schools can save money by tapping the expertise of executives, who need minimal orientation for class exercises, or by training second-year MBA students to act as coaches in exchange for experience and course credit.

But it’s important to “invest where it matters most,” she adds. For instance, Kenan-Flagler pays professionals to design management simulations and spends several days training role players to deliver these simulations. “It’s a big investment, but we know then that the simulations are research-based, that they contain rigor, and that they can be delivered consistently time after time,” Storrie says. 

9. START SMALL, BUT START. Even if a school lacks the resources to redesign an entire program, it can still reap educational benefits with smaller activities that are less resource intensive, says JD Schramm, a lecturer in organizational behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business in California. Electives, faculty-led student book clubs, assigned study groups, or additional writing assignments can all be valuable, he notes. 

Or, suggests Phan, deliver one new course and see how it works. “We piloted our courses in the part-time program before we launched them in our Global MBA,” he says. “If you start small, you can afford to fail, so build those failures into your contingencies.” But it’s also important, he adds, to “get early wins, and use those as inspirational messages for the rest of the faculty.”

10. BUILD OVER TIME. IESE Business School in Barcelona, Spain, started its course “The Globalization of Business Enterprise” with an optional seminar for first-year MBAs in 2009, before expanding it into a 12-session course in 2010. The school further integrated that course with others this year. 

In brief: Garner widespread support, assemble sufficient resources, create the program in small chunks, and be pre-pared to revise—and revise again, as you continuously improve your business school curriculum.