Following New Directions

Educators discuss the lessons they’ve learned as they’ve implemented innovation in their curricula. While no approach works for everyone, these educators hope there’s inspiration here for others who want to take new paths in management education.
Following New Directions

Messy. Exhausting. Exciting. Frightening. Fun. Unpredictable. Life-changing. These are just a few words that educators use to describe what it’s like to take management education in new directions—that is, to eschew tried-and-true classroom formats for approaches that often have no clear precedent and no assurance of success. While few of these pedagogical experiments turn out the way educators expect, almost all evolve into valuable learning experiences for students and faculty alike.

Programs that have broken the mold in the business classroom offer eight ideas for successful innovation—and share how teaching within cultures of innovation has paid off for them, their students, and their schools.

AACSB International’s recent report, “Business Schools on an Innovation Mission,” highlighted the need for business schools to embrace innovation in ways that suit their diverse missions and strengths. But to create cultures where innovation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, it helps for business schools to share ideas about how to inspire faculty to experiment and how to engage students in nontraditional classrooms—about what worked and what still needs tweaking. 

Here, educators discuss the lessons they’ve learned as they’ve implemented innovation in their curricula. While no approach works for everyone, these educators hope there’s inspiration here for others who want to take new paths in management education.

1 Showcase great ideas.

The Research Centre in Higher Education Learning and Management at Aston Business School in the United Kingdom has developed a series of what it calls “good practice initiatives,” including its Good Practice Guide in Learning and Teaching. Each year, the school invites faculty to write a few pages on new ideas that have worked in their classrooms.

“We wanted to find a way to showcase best practices across the school, so we started to identify faculty who were doing exceptional things in their teaching,” says Julie Green, quality manager at Aston. A recent edition of the guide includes a number of case studies, including one on using video recordings of student presentations to develop students’ presentation skills and another on asking students to write essays that outline their personal philosophies on management. The case studies follow diverse formats, but many offer summaries of the methods used, the reasons behind the experiment, the advantages and disadvantages of putting it into practice, feedback from students, and plans for the future.

Now in its eighth edition, the guide has been expanded to include support staff. It has led to wider adoption of technologies such as virtual quizzes and online feedback; it’s also part of a broader initiative that includes a postgraduate certificate in leaning and teaching for new staff and an annual Learning and Teaching Symposium.

The guide and other initiatives have encouraged rich discussion and sharing of best practices across a range of subject areas, says Green. “More important, we have gotten more than 60 of our faculty and staff to write something for the guide, many of whom have never reflected or written on leaning and teaching before.”

Past editions of the guide are housed online at

2 Pair courses with competitions.

Boundaries can blur where innovation is concerned, not only between disciplines, but between activities. At many schools, faculty are designing new learning experiences that continue from one course to the next—or from a course to a competition.

A few years ago, faculty at Mississippi State University’s College of Business were looking for ways to cross disciplines, teach hands-on business skills, and spark interest in computer programming. They developed a course called Field Studies in Entrepreneurship (FSE), which requires students to develop an actual product and sell it all over the world. Normally, that task would seem too large to accomplish in a single semester, but in this case, faculty created a way to make it possible—they have students create an iPhone application and sell it through Apple’s online App Store. Total startup cost? $99.

Unofficially called “iPhone Entrepreneurship,” FSE is a senior- and graduate-level course that attracts approximately half of its students from business and half from engineering, although students can enroll from any major. It is taught by five faculty members, including the director of the school’s Entrepreneurship Center, two marketing professors, one management professor, and Rodney Pearson, a professor of business information systems. The course includes discussions of business concepts, homework, presentations, and exams, in addition to students’ self-directed work on their projects.

The day after FSE ends, the MSU Innovation Challenge begins. The goal of the challenge is to create the most successful iPhone apps on campus. All MSU students, faculty, and staff are eligible to compete for $10,000 in prizes in two categories—paid apps and free apps. The top three entrants in each category, based on total revenue and/or total number of downloads, receive $2,500, $1,500, and $500, respectively. There also is a $1,000 Bulldog’s Choice Award for the most innovative app. Past winners have included Equater, a math skills game; iKnowMe, a set of personality quizzes aimed at preadolescents; and iPlan2Study, a study aid to help students organize notes, slides, videos, audio files, an other digital material related to their coursework.

However, innovation often means that the learning process will be messy and unpredictable—students won’t always be successful in achieving the goals they set. For example, last fall, two student teams didn’t complete their products and could not enter the com-petition, says Pearson. “In both cases, there were internal conflict that they never got past,” he says. “That’s not a death sentence in the class, because there still are exams, homework, and presentations. But it definitely kept them out of the ensuing competition.

Even so, the Innovation Challenge provides all FSE students motivation throughout the semester to create the best product possible, as well as a real-world measure of their success in mastering a range of skills, says Pearson. “From day one, the professors stress to students the need for less obvious skills such as managerial, organizational, motivational, marketing, communication, and more,” he says. “Three of our students from our fall 2009 class were headed for corporate careers, but changed their routes to follow an entrepreneurial path after taking this course. All three said, ‘This class changed my life.’”

3 Start where you are.

Innovation is a hard sell at Fort Lewis College School of Business Administration in Durango, Colorado, according to its dean Gary Linn. A town with a population of just over 16,000, Durango is located near several ski resorts and Mesa Verde National Park, which makes tourism a main focus in the school’s program.

“Our students aren’t seeing the value of courses in creativity because they don’t yet see how the jobs here require it,” says Linn. “With budget cuts looming, it’s difficult to convince the president and provost to start a course that will have fewer than ten students in it.”

But the school’s faculty are working to educate students on the value of innovative thinking in tourism and all industries. For example, the school has what it calls “Innovation Months” that send its students out of the U.S. for three to eight weeks to take at least one for-credit upper-level business course. In addition, the marketing department is working on courses that teach students to apply more creative thinking to their projects.

Linn says that a next step will be to arrange more internships related to innovation with local growth companies to further spark student interest. “We’re working on giving our students more global experiences and exposing them to innovation as much as possible,” says Linn.

4 Find new ways  to deliver content.

The Center for Executive Education at the University of Pittsburgh’s Katz Graduate School of Business in Pennsylvania sees unique opportunities to innovate in international mar-kets. But rolling out executive programs in foreign markets can be resource-intensive, particularly when they’re custom-designed for local companies.

The Katz School has been offering executive MBA programs in Brazil for ten years, but recently it took an unusual step for an English-speaking school—it began delivering a project management certificate prrgram in Portuguese to the Brazilian market. “Brazil is going to be hosting the World Cup and the Olympics over the next few years, and it’s experiencing double-digit growth,” says Anne Nemer, director of the center. “We wanted to capture the opportunities created by growth outside the U.S. in a way that allows us to still focus on what we do well.”

The Katz School began vetting new Portuguese-speaking faculty in Brazil to deliver its project management coursework. Once the school had selected instructors, it began working with Pittsburgh-based PMcentersUSA and its vice president, Joe Lukas, to train the trainers. The program is now offered to executives in São Paulo and Campinas.

This approach allows the Katz School to deliver courses in a market where English fluency is still quite low. Only about 15 percent of the population in São Paulo speaks English. But people still need training to manage the large capital projects in Brazil, Nemer emphasizes.

“We had to think outside the box and put in standards for quality control that we were comfortable with. With a ‘train the trainer’ approach, we can sustain a program like this for the long term, in a way we couldn’t if we were using our own faculty,” Nemer says. “We imagine that the portfolio of programs we offer in Portuguese will expand, so that Brazilian managers don’t have to be fluent in English to access international business training.”

Innovation happens at the edge of disciplines, so we need to create places where disciplines can come together without all the politics. —Jeff DeGraff, University of Michigan

5 Dedicate separate space for innovation.

The business curriculum is already so crowded with core courses and electives that it’s difficult to make room for new experimental courses. At the Katz School, administrators always leave a couple of places in the program open so new courses can be inserted. Some schools take this one step further—they’re creating new entities for innovation outside the business school.

Innovatrium, a nonprofit located on the campus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, is just such a space that attracts faculty, students, and entrepreneurs from the entire region. Innovatrium was created to help individuals and organizations jump start their big ideas, diagnose their strengths, hone leadership abilities, and develop innovative processes, says Jeff DeGraff, Innovatrium director and a clinical professor of management and organizations at the university’s Ross School of Business.

“Innovation happens at the edge of disciplines, so we need to create places where disciplines can come together without all the politics,” says DeGraff. “Innovatrium is like Switzerland—we’re completely neutral!”

Innovatrium works on projects that range from GE’s “eco-imagination” initiative to new infrastructure for alternative energy projects. It also tackles problems presented by the university. Most recently, campus administrators asked Innovatrium for ways to improve the intercampus network and idea exchange for university staff.

Other schools also are opening their own dedicated spaces for innovation. Recently, for example, Harvard Business School in Boston, Massachusetts, announced that it would open the Harvard Innovation Lab in late 2011. In the first phase of the lab’s launch, planned for this fall, student entrepreneurs from Harvard’s undergraduate, graduate, and professional programs will work on new ventures under the guidance of entrepreneurs-in-residence, faculty, and administrators. Some teams will work independently, while others will work as part of established courses.

For example, teams of students in the course “Inventing Breakthroughs and Commercializing Science,” taught jointly by professors from HBS and the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Science, will use the lab to develop plans to commercialize scientific discoveries generated by the university. In addition, 150 teams entering the annual HBS business plan contest will be given workspace to develop their projects. In stage two of the launch, the lab will open up to entrepreneurs in the surrounding community.

“When schools are trying to build something new between departments, they have to answer questions such as who’s funding it, who’s getting tenure, how will it affect the number of journal articles,” says DeGraff. “Sometimes when you move this activity just a few degrees off center, you no longer have to deal with those kinds of issues.”

6 Act fast—but take it slow.

Perhaps one of the trickiest aspects of innovation is to balance the short-term and long-term vision that it demands. On the one hand, when it comes to implementing innovation, speed is of the essence, says DeGraff. “Innovation is has a shelf life—it’s like milk. It goes sour if you wait too long,” he says. That means to be innovators, business schools can-not follow the traditional format of waiting years to make curricular changes.

But while there should be systems and spaces in place to put worthy new ideas to the test quickly, administration should also be patient. It takes time for new ideas to evolve—and to find the right people, who have a passion for experimentation.

“Deans will visit us, and they all say that they have the staff they need to innovate at home. But then six months later they call to say, ‘I don’t have the right people,’” says DeGraff. “The biggest mistake people make is that they think these people are easy to find. They’re not. It’s taken me ten years to put my staff together. It can take that long to find people with academic credentials and experience launching new products or ventures.”

DeGraff also thinks long term when it comes to training innovators. Innovatrium includes on its staff “Innovation Fellows”—doctoral students that the center trains using the “See One, Do One, Teach One” approach, DeGraff explains. Initially, Fellows only watch as more seasoned staff work on large projects. Once they’ve seen how the process works, they take small roles in the next few projects while senior staff members offer guidance. Finally, with many projects behind them, they are asked to train the incoming Fellows.

“Expecting business students to learn how to innovate in six weeks is like thinking medical students can get through medical school in six weeks,” he says. “Students must learn to adapt to different industries—innovation doesn’t look the same in a steel company as it does in a biotech. They need time to learn the tricks of the trade.”


7 Let students lead.

Many business school innovations result in student-driven courses. Rather than consisting of lectures and exams, these courses allow students to design their own learning experience.

This fall, Rouen Business School in France opened its Entrepreneurship and Innovation Center in response to students’ growing interest in entrepreneurship. Within this space, faculty guide—not direct—students through the start-up process. “The students have the power, responsibility, and freedom to lead and make entrepreneurial decisions based on their experiences, skills, and coaching,” says Denis Gallot, head of Rouen’s entrepreneurship specialization program.

Another such course is part of the MBA program at the School of Management at the University of Buffalo, The State University of New York. Its Leadership PACE (Personal Achievement through Competency Evaluation) program, developed by management professor Jerry Newman, offers what the school calls “person-centered learning,” explains Muriel Anderson, visiting assistant professor. At the beginning of the course, students complete a variety of assessment tools to gauge their skill levels in four different competencies, including self-management and adaptability, interpersonal skills, communication, and team leadership. Then, over the course of the semester, they complete assignments to reveal their interests, abilities, values, and future goals.

“This process calls for each student to identify patterns indicating areas of strength and areas that need improvement,” says Anderson. Students practice new behaviors that target their weaknesses. By the end of the course, students have created a personal competency portfolio that outlines their talents, values, and aspirations. Leadership PACE has proved so popular with students that the school has expanded it into a new certification program called LeaderCORE (Certification of Readines and Excellence).

8 Expect trial, error,  and evolution.

Administrators might be reluctant to add a new course to the curriculum because they fear it will be difficult to drop if it proves unsuccessful. But that fear can keep a curriculum static, says Nemer of the University of Pittsburgh. Not to mention, it fails to take into account the ability of courses to evolve, as instructors improve upon aspects that didn’t work so well and adapt to needs over time.

In fact, many of the new courses introduced by the Katz School have significantly evolvedover time, Nemer says. For example, a course on outsourcing transitioned into a broader course that also covered the political, social, and economic realities in developing markets in China and India. That course then evolved to focus on global change management and leadership in turbulent times. “Faculty members who created the original course now allow others to view their syllabi and build on that,” says Nemer. “We use courses like this as places where we can collaborate on a more meaningful level across the university.”

According to DeGraff, innovation is an “iterative game.” To be innovators, administrators, faculty, and students alike must try new ideas and even expect to fail. Expecting success defeats the purpose of innovation, which is to discover unexpected ideas, he says.

What business schools can model for their students—and for the companies they serve—is that even the best innovators don’t get it right the first time. “If they do, they got lucky,” says DeGraff. But in business and in teaching, he and other educators believe, it’s what people do after failures that lies at the heart of innovation. By responding to failure with even more new ideas and improvements, faculty can end up with courses that succeed far beyond their original visions. And business schools can break traditional molds to venture in new directions, where they can better meet the needs of an unpredictable global business market.