Collaborative Efforts

It can take extra effort to maintain effective, long-term cross-disciplinary programs. In return, business schools expose students to more diverse perspectives and encourage them to explore more innovative business solutions.

"A business manager, an engineer, and a lawyer walk into a bar…”  Most of us have heard jokes that start much like this—the ones with punch lines that depend on stereotypical differences between disciplines. Invariably, we laugh when these individuals fall victim to the limitations of their professional perspectives. But how would these jokes end if, instead of stay-ing locked in those perspectives, the man-ager, engineer, and lawyer built on their collective expertise to craft more innova-tive solutions than any one of them could on their own?

They might not be as funny, but they could lead to better solutions for business. In fact, companies as wide-ranging as IBM, GE, Xerox, and Procter & Gamble are adopt-ing this formula for collaboration. They’re encouraging workers to break through disciplinary boundries to tap the creative power of their shared knowledge.

Given the growing importance of cross-disciplinary collaboration to business innovation, it makes sense for business schools to create programs with other departments on campus, says Dean McFarlin, chair of the management and marketing department at the University of Dayton’s School of Business Administration in Ohio. “It’s unfortunate that we as academics haven’t collectively crossed disciplines more often,” says McFarlin. “But it’s a hard slog, like running a business. You can’t set up a cross-disciplinary program, and then sit back and watch it run. You have to monitor it, tweak it, evolve it, and grow it.”

In the following pages, McFarlin and three other educators discuss the joint initiatives their schools have undertaken with other departments on campus and share a few of the strategic lessons they’ve learned along the way. When cross-disciplinary programs are done well, they emphasize, the benefits to the bus-ness school far outweigh the effort it takes to manage them.

Be Persistent with Purpose

When business faculty at the University of Dayton decided they wanted to partner with UD’s School of Engineering, they had two goals: to expose their entrepreneurship students to real-world business projects and to expand the school’s business plan competition. The engineering school’s Innovation Center seemed a “natural fit because it attracted entrepreneurs seeking an engineer’s help to build prototypes of their ideas. But they also needed help testing the market and building their enterprises.

However, McFarlin says that when he and his colleagues pitched the idea of forging a partnership to the center’s director, he initially turned them down. “He said it sounded like a great idea, but he and his faculty didn’t have the time.”

But the business school persisted. As the center attracted more entrepreneurial startups, its engineering students weren’t equipped to help those clients write strong business plans. “That’s when the director realized, ‘We can’t do this on our own,’” says McFarlin. “We convinced him that these projects presented a win-win scenario for both schools.”

Now, the two schools offer joint courses in engineering and technical innovation. At the start of each semester, business and engineering faculty meet to evaluate projects coming to the Innovation Center. They separate out those that are entrepreneurial—the ones perfect for teams of business and engineering students to tackle together. “Entrepreneurs want parallel processes, where product development is shaped by market analysis,” says McFarlin.

Once students help the center’s entrepreneurial clients develop their ideas, some clients enter the school’s business plan competition—to be eligible to become finalists, their teams simply must include at least one UD student or graduate. That means the partnership has helped the business school achieve both of its original goals. It’s also provided benefits to engineering students By pairing them with management students, it’s helped young engineers develop entrepreneurial mindsets, learn to speak the language of busi-ness, and understand when a proto-type might not be worth building.

Strategic Lessons: In creating this partnership, business faculty at the University of Dayton adopted three strategies that they recommend to other schools. First, look for partners whose missions complement your own. “You can’t treat these relationships like a Monopoly board and just move the pieces around,” says McFarlin. “You have to find the right partners—the unit or programs that make sense from a tactical standpoint.”

Second, identify the individual or individuals within those units in the best position to make the partnership happen. “When we first approached the engineering school, we asked everyone there, including the dean, who would be the best person to talk to,” says McFarlin. “In the end, we had a long list of names, but the same person came up again and again—the director of the Innovation Cen-ter. It took time to convince him to work with us, but he’s now our biggest champion.” 

Finally, view constrained resources as a reason to pursue cross-disciplinary programs—not to avoid them. When resources are scarce and faculty time is limited, the last thing administrators want to do is add a collaborative program to the mix. “But that’s exactly when you should pursue collaboration,” McFarlin advises. “If you choose the right opportunities, you can leverage the time and energy of other departments and end up with a whole much greater than the sum of its parts.”

Target Real-World Impact

When the College of Business at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces decided to expand its cross-disciplinary efforts, it wanted to make real-world contributions to economic development. The result is the now four-year-old Doctor of Economic Development (DED) pro-gram offered jointly by the college’s economic department and College of Agriculture and Home Econom-ics. The DED program is an extension of a joint master’s program in economics the two schools have offered for 30 years.

Administrators at both colleges decided to design a professional doctorate instead of a traditional PhD degree because there already were so many PhD programs in economics available in the market, explains Rick Adkisson, director of the DED program. “We decided we could make a bigger contribution with a program that pre-pares people to practice economic development rather than enter into academia,” he says.

The DED program now serves about 25 to 30 students from business and agriculture. These students come together in several courses to conduct feasibility studies of projects such as building a solar electricity plant in New Mexico or a nuclear waste site in Utah. In lieu of dissertations, DED students complete internships and individual projects with real-world impact on economic development. For example, one student returned to his native Jordan to work on a tourism project, while another worked on water conservation issues in the New Mexico region.

The different perspectives of business and agriculture complement each other well in the class-room, says Adkisson. “Agricultural students are more interested in rural concerns and tend to focus on areas like the management of resources,” he says. “Business students are more interested in urban projects and entrepreneurial approaches to economic development.

”Strategic Lesson: Topics with broad application make more useful targets for cross-disciplinary programs, says Adkisson. Although the DED program focuses on economic development, students also take courses in subjects such as public policy, geography, and tourism management. “Economic development crosses into so many subjects,” says Adkisson. “Collaboration might not be as useful in a more narrowly defined area.” 

Build a Collaboration Culture

Interdisciplinary activity is now a central part of the curriculum at the College of Business at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, largely because of two changes the school recently made to its programs. First, five yearsago, it began to allow students from across the university to apply to its Illinois Business Consulting (IBC) program, which used to be open only to MBAs. Then, two years ago, it announced that it would allow MBA students to take up to 16 hours of electives outside the business school.

“We’ve made cross-disciplinary work a high priority,” says Stig Lanesskog, associate dean for MBA programs. “We wanted to bring in students from across campus because we realized how great a source of expertise we had to draw from.”

Launched in 1996 to provide real-world business experiences to MBAs, the IBC forms interdisciplinary student teams to work with businesses in the U.S. and abroad. Students go through an interview process to join the IBC program—less than half of those who apply are accepted. The majority of IBC students study business and engineering, but others major in subjects such as agriculture, labor relations, fine art, architecture, and hard sciences like chemistry and biology.

Each year, nearly 300 students work on about 50 IBC projects, which generate approximately US$250,000 in consulting fees for the school. Students work at least ten hours a week on their projects and receive course credit; those who serve as senior leaders of the IBC also receive a stipend.

Because MBA students now can take 16 hours of non-business electives, they have a much larger pool of potential faculty mentors, Lanesskog says. “When the IBC wasn’t cross-disciplinary, students most often approached faculty within the College of Business as experts,” he says. Now, for example, students are more comfortable seeking out professors of agriculture, chemistry, or engineering, depending on the needs of their projects.

The first year the elective option was in place, 35 percent of full-time MBAs took courses outside the business school; this year, that number shot up to 80 percent. That increase shows how much students value the opportunity to customize their programs and gain different perspectives on their areas of interest, says Lanesskog.

Strategic Lesson: Departments throughout the University of Illinois have worked together in small ways for more than 25 years, which made it easier for the business school to build bridges to other disciplines. Lanesskog advises other schools to tap existing collaborative relation-ships between departments and individual faculty. Then, it’s just a matter of taking the time to build those relationships.

Respond to Calls to Action

In 2005, U.K. prime minister Gordon Brown, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, commissioned a report that highlighted the value of design to business. Led by Sir George Cox, the “Cox Review of Creativity in Business” called for more collaboration among schools of business, engineering, and design throughout the United Kingdom.

The Cox report spurred the Imperial College Business School in London to make cross-disciplinary collaboration a significant part of its educational mission. It formed Design London in partnership with the Royal College of Art (RCA). Before Design London, the Imperial College Business School and RCA had worked together for many years to offer “Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Design,” a required MBA course. The new program extends that partner-ship to encompass teaching and research functions, a business incubator, and a 3D simulator where students and faculty test designs for innovative products and services.

Through Design London, students and faculty also have developed a range of prototypes, from a water-less sanitation device for villages that lack running water to a special air-pressurized vest to help people on the autism spectrum better concentrate on tasks and cope with anxiety. Most recently, the program revealed its design for a new kind of ambulance to help city paramedics deliver better treatment to patients.

Design London also includes labs dedicated to designing solutions in subject-specific areas, including cl-mate change, energy, and the digital economy. In 2012, the schools will extend the program to include engineering students at Imperial College London. “We have students flowing between the business and art schools—cross-disciplinary collaboration has become a part of our routine,” says David Gann, co-founder of Design London.

Design London was first conceived as a four-year project funded by the Higher Education Funding Council and the National Endowment for Science, Technology, and the Arts, both of the U.K. Now at the end of that four-year term, the initiative has been so success-ful that the schools are making it permanent. It will be supported by tuition, consulting fees, and general school funds.

Strategic Lesson: Collaboration for its own sake is likely to fail, so it’s important to set and maintain a vision for the outcomes you want from the partnership, says Gann. “Our goal was to produce graduates with a richer understanding of the role design plays in business, so they’ll have more opportunities in the job market.” 

Bring Excitement to Campus

While it may not inspire new jokes, working across disciplines is certainly fun for students and faculty, says Gann. “Design London creates a vibrant culture that’s exciting and interesting,” he says. “We’ve got large companies such as Microsoft and IBM, as well as smaller design and engineering firms, continuously giving us projects for students to work on.”

McFarlin of the University of Dayton admits that managing collaborative relationships can add 25 percent to 50 percent to a professor's workload. But schools can restructure their faculty incentives to recognize the importance of cross-disciplinary work.

More important than incentives, he says, is this strategic lesson of cross-disciplinary collaboration: Find faculty who are passionate about working across disciplines. “Ultimately, you need to find faculty who believe it contributes to a greater good,” says McFarlin. “For us, this work has improved our business and engineering programs, as well as our business school’s reputation.”

The stronger a business school’s cross-campus connections become, the more benefits they introduce into the curriculum, he adds. That means larger professional net-works, more diverse perspectives, and richer educational experiences for students and faculty—not to mention graduates who are fully prepared to blaze trails with multi-disciplinary teams.

Deaning Across Disciplines

Garrey Carruthers, dean of New Mexico State University’s College of Business in Las Cruces, has worked across disciplines his entire career—as a White House Fellow for the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture in the mid-1970s; as Assistant Sec-retary of the U.S. Department of the Interior in the early 1980s; and, finall, as the governor of New Mexico from 1987 to 1990. For ten years, he was president and CEO of managed-care company Cimarron Health Plan in New Mexico. Car-ruthers, who calls himself a nontraditional dean, fervently supports cross-disciplin-ary education because, as he says, business isn’t just about business anymore.

Once, during an interview, I was asked how the College of Business is different today than it was before I became dean. My immediate response was that it’s more external than it’s ever been. For our school to be successful, we must have rela-tionships with other colleges.

For the last year and a half, for example, the deans of all six colleges at NMSU have been meeting every couple of weeks. That includes the colleges of business; engineering; education; arts and sciences; education; health and social services; and agricultural, consumer, and environmental sci-ences. These meetings give us a mechanism to discuss the challenges our schools face and identify opportunities for collaboration.

So far, the College of Business is involved in sev-eral other cross-disciplinary programs:

• We created the Daniels Fellows program with a US$250,000 grant from the Daniels Fund Ethics Initiative. We offer fellowships to faculty campuswide willing to work on ethics issues. We receive proposals from faculty in a wide range of disciplines, including engineering, English, criminal justice, and statistics. This year, ten fellows are from the College of Busi-ness, and seven are from other departments.

• We developed the Arrowhead Center, which pro-motes economic development in New Mexico. The center is supported by all six deans and employs 30 to 35 students from every college. The students provide market analysis and business plan advice to help New Mexican entrepreneurs commercialize their ideas.

• We’re collaborating with the College of Engineering to develop a four-course series on entrepreneurship. These courses will be open to students across the uni-versity and taught by faculty from every college.

Because cross-disciplinary collaboration must be a shared enterprise, these courses will be owned by the university, not the College of Business. No business school entering such collaborations should do so with a sense of ownership. But the payoff comes when employers want to hire our students because they have such a wide range of experiences. 

Our graduates will work in every walk of life—in local school districts, govern-ment agencies, nonprofits, small organizations, and big organizations. hey won’t be well-served with a narrow curriculum offering a limited set of learning experi-ences. Whether you’re talking about business or government, the world is multidis-ciplinary. That’s why we feel we must train our students across disciplines.

8 More Strategies For Smart Collaboration

1. Start with a single partnership. Extensive inter-disciplinary activities often begin with one joint effort with an external department, says David Gann of Design London. “Start in one place,” he says. “Find a high-quality partner, and follow a vision for what you want to produce.”

2. Test the market. Gann also recommends surveying stakeholders to determine the most promising approach. “You need to know that students want to participate, staff want to be involved, and employers want to hire the graduates,” says Gann. “It can take three or four years to get these factors in place.”

3. Be willing to compromise. At New Mexico State University, more than 30 faculty from business and agriculture worked on designing its Doctor of Economic Development pro-gram. Not surprisingly, “coming to a consensus was a challenge,” says Rick Adkisson. “Even after we passed the proposal, there still were differences, but they have largely resolved themselves. Faculty on both sides were invested enough that they worked together and helped push the degree forward, even in the face of competing demands.”

4. Coordinate course schedules. The classes that business and engineering students take for their programs often must be scheduled at certain times, says Dean McFarlin of the University of Dayton. “We need to plan our course schedules farther ahead of time, so that students have time to work on the projects coming through the Innovation Center.”

5. Help students navigate the options. The more interdepartmental activities a school offers, the more students might feel overwhelmed by the options. That’s why the College of Business at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign devised a document for advisors to use to help students cre-ate educational plans. In the document’s top half, students list courses inside and outside the business school that support their career aspirations. In its bottom half, they list potential extracurricular activities, such as consulting, internships, or case competitions.

6. Assign dedicated staff. Because cross-disciplinary activities increase faculty’s workloads, assigning someone to coordinate activities and address conflicts can relieve some ofthat burden. That’s why the University of Dayton appointed a professor familiar with HR issues at startups to advise teams of business and engineering students. She works with the teams one-on-one to help them improve their group dynamics and resolve conflicts.

7. Seek external funding. Some organizations offer funding for multidisciplinary approaches to entrepreneurship, such as the Kauffman Foundation in Missouri and the Kern Foundation in Wisconsin. The schools of business and engi-neering at the University of Dayton, for instance, received a three-year US$2.4 million grant through the Kern Family Foun-dation’s Kern Entrepreneurship Education Network (KEEN) to support their collaboration.

8. Keep communication open—on multiple levels. Schools should put systems in place that connect students, faculty, and administrators regularly via face-to-face, phone, and e-mail communications, says McFarlin. At UD, busi-ness faculty even recently attended an engineering conference to have more face time with their engineering counterparts. “We’re all busy, so we have to have multiple mechanisms to ensure communication,” he says. “That way, we can make sure things are going OK, and we can look for future opportunities.”

No Growth in Joint MBA Programs

One of the most prominent examples of cross-disciplinary business education is the joint MBA degree program, which is offered in conjunction with schools of medicine, law, engineering, or other professional schools. According to AACSB International’s annual Business School Questionnaire (BSQ), the number of joint programs at a controlled subset of 76 schools peaked at 158 in 2008–2009, up from 148 in 2006–2007. But since then, that number has returned to pre-recession levels. In 2010–2011, these schools reported 146 joint MBA programs, which represented 6.3 percent of all MBA programs reported to the BSQ.

A controlled subset of 19 schools provided data that show that although enrollments in joint programs have stayed fairly steady, the number of joint degrees conferred to graduates at these schools is declining—from 180 to 101, down nearly 44 percent since 2006–2007. That’s been the case even as the number of general MBA enrollments and degrees conferred has steadily increased at a controlled set of 326 schools.

These numbers could make sense in light of the recession, according to staff on AACSB’s Knowledge Services team. For exam-ple, lack of growth in joint MBA pro-grams could be due to simple supply and demand. Many people who find themselves out of work pursu general MBA programs, rather than specialized MBAs. Joint programs generally are more popular among a small number of students fresh out of their undergraduate studies who want additional degrees linked to their MBAs.

Since 2006–2007, fewer stu-dents enrolling in joint programs are actually earning joint degrees. This could be caused by differ-ent factors. For instance, some schools’ graduation dates might not follow a two-year schedule, or more students may be taking longer to finish their program because of financial concerns.

With more professional schools offering multidisciplinary courses, joint MBA degrees may be becoming less neces-sary for students, according to AACSB. If students in medical or law schools, for example, can take business courses in their curriculum, they may not see the need to pursue MBA/JD or MBA/MD degrees, which add greater challenge to an already rigorous course of study.