Building the 21st-Century Curriculum

The Carey Business School at Johns Hopkins University designs its new Global MBA program to prepare graduates to thrive in an international and interdisciplinary workplace.
Building the 21st-Century Curriculum

Ever since the Carnegie Foundation began classifying universities by the levels of research they produce, business schools have been turning out students who are experts in silo-based disciplines. But it’s becoming increasingly apparent that those aren’t the kinds of graduates businesses are looking for. What corporations want from business schools today are graduates who are prepared to work in complex, mobile, global, multidisciplinary environments from the minute they walk through the door.

I was involved in a two-year survey of what parents, students, and employers expect from a business program when I was part of a steering committee that helped launch a full-time MBA program at the new Carey Business School at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. In our research, we learned that technical skills are still important—that employers want graduates who have mastered the basic tools of marketing, finance, and operations—but those skills aren’t enough by themselves anymore. B-school grads won’t simply be asked to run spreadsheets; they’ll have to interpret what they find, then sell their analysis to top management. They’ll have to be entrepreneurial in how they deal with corporate problems and opportunities.

In addition, we learned that companies want graduates who know how to manage highly ambiguous projects and how to innovate internally. They want students who know what it means to be resilient—in the face of failure, ambiguity, and resistance to change. They want students who can start working on a messy problem without having to overanalyze it or without being certain they’ll end up where they expect. They want students who know how to take ideas and turn them into market opportunities.

Finally, we identified three major trends that are affecting all businesses today: an emphasis on globalization, a demand for interdisciplinary skills, and a need to integrate Millennials into the work-force. (For more details, see “Three Trends to Watch” on page 43.)

We drew on all these market realities to design our Global MBA, which launched in August 2010 with 88 students in two cohorts. Our goal is to produce graduates who are versatile and skilled communicators, who are comfortable with scientific jargon and familiar with the political nature of at least one emerging economy. But more than that, we want to give employers what they most need today—graduates who are resilient, self-reliant, entrepreneurial, innovative, and clear about their values. 

The Carey Curriculum

Once the steering committee completed its research, the faculty took over design of program content and created the Global MBA curriculum in four months. While established schools might find it difficult to get faculty buy-in on a major curriculum overhaul, the Carey School is new; the faculty had been hired knowing they would participate in program design, and they did so enthusiastically.

Our Global MBA begins with an immersive two-week orientation that prepares participants for the classes they’ll be taking and the business environment they’ll be studying. Students visit the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund; hear guest speakers, such as cultural attachés, discuss the current state of international business; and take introductory courses in topics like statistics. Then they begin two years of specialized courses that form the heart of the program:

Business Essentials. During their first semester, MBA students take a 13-week “mini MBA,” which consists of four integrated modules each taught by two instructors from different disciplines. Not only do these courses deliver core business knowledge to students, but their interdisciplinary format also conveys the idea that all business skills and problems are interconnected.

For instance, in the “People and Markets” course, professors from human resources and marketing teach about the acquisition of employees and consumers—because their behaviors are driven by similar internal and external market mechanisms. In the “Business Processes” class, one instructor specializes in strategic management, and one specializes in operations management. They teach the processes of value creation from the enterprise level to the business-process level.

All eight instructors meet several times over the course of the semester to coordinate their cases and cross-reference each other’s classes. It’s expensive to run a program this way and probably only feasible with a relatively small class size—we plan eventually to top out each Global MBA class at 160 students in four cohorts. Despite the challenges, we believe cross-disciplinary courses are an essential way to integrate the curriculum.

Innovation for Humanity. In this nine-week social entrepreneur-ship course, students prepare to solve a problem facing an organization in an emerging economy. During the first six weeks, students work in teams to understand a specific problem presented by an NGO, nonprofit, or social entrepreneur, and they design a solution by using business tools they’ve learned in class. In the last three weeks, they travel to the country to execute the plan and then present their solution to representatives of those organizations.

In January 2011, our GMBA students worked with project partners onsite in Peru, Rwanda, Kenya, and India. (See “Innovation for Saving Lives” on page 44.) Because students travel to areas that are truly remote, one of the challenges of this class is making sure the school has employed the appropriate risk-management strategies. Nonetheless, we believe such experiences are essential to help Millennials build resilience. When a problem comes up, especially in a foreign environment, they can’t confer with their parents about what to do next.

Discovery to Market. In this yearlong tech-commercialization project, the business school forms partnerships with other entities—including the Johns Hopkins schools of medicine and engineering; the U.S. Army Research Center in Fort Detrick, Maryland; and the University of Maryland—to find commercial applications for scientific discoveries. In this class, we teach students how to assess a discovery for possible patenting, how to conduct field research, how to conduct a feasibility study, and how to create a go-to-market strategy. We’ve also hired two Johns Hopkins PhDs with back-grounds in chemical engineering and biomedical engineering to act as science coaches. In addition, they teach students how to read scientific papers and understand scientific discoveries.


In five- or six-person teams, students work with a principal investigator to understand a particular scientific breakthrough. For instance someone might have discovered a set of bio markers that allow for the early detection of esophageal cancer. The inventor explains the science behind the discovery, and the students figure out if its novel enough and useful enough for the university to undertake the expense of applying for a patent. They also determine the market potential for the project—the incidences of this kind of cancer, how much a company could charge for a testing kit, and whether a startup from the university should develop the kit or if the school should license it to a pharmaceutical company.

In the 2010–2011 academic year, we ran 18 of these projects, which encompassed everything from medical devices to robotics to alternative energy to virtual reality. Not only is this class interdisciplinary and highly entrepreneurial, it helps MBAs feel comfortable talking to scientists.

Thought and Discourse. The graduate seminar as a pedagogical tool is a tradition across Johns Hopkins, and in the business school we use this technique to teach difficult-to-convey topics like ethics and social responsibility. We did not think we could deliver these topics in a straight classroom format since a true appreciation of a manager’s difficulties and challenges can be gained only through discourse, not through instruction. The seminar leader presents a question and a way of approaching it, but the students have to struggle to come to conclusions of their own.

In a class on personal and corporate responsibility, students have to grapple with questions related to individual ethics. For example, one question we posed was: If investors are people of conscience, should they sell their BP stock, given the environmental, human, and economic consequences of BP’s recent actions? The students employ an ethical framework, research the question, and then debate formally in class. They also write their thoughts into personal journals, which are then assessed for insight.

Some students love this course, and some hate it. But we feel it’s essential to teach them that they can’t achieve seniority or be managers of any consequence if they don’t have a clear understanding of their own values and their own approaches to solving knotty problems for which there are no easy answers.

Continuous improvement

At the end of the first year of the Global MBA, we identified areas in the curriculum we needed to revise. The adjustments do not change our fundamental approach or design, but they’re nonetheless important.

For instance, in the Innovation for Humanity project, we’ve decided that before we send our students around the world, they need more time to develop an understanding of the environments they’ll be working in. While they did a good job of solving the specific business problems they were given, we felt they needed to be more focused on creating solutions that were keyed to the local context and its level of technological sophistication. In other words, we didn’t want a solution designed for a company in New York if students were working with a non-profit in Peru. Therefore, we’ve added more time at the beginning to make sure they’re fully prepared for the experience.

We also tweaked the Thought and Discourse class so we’re better able to reach the students who aren’t convinced this is important to them professionally. We plan to spend more time upfront helping students clarify their personal values.

In the future, we expect to make adjustments on a continuous basis, because we constantly revisit and assess our curriculum. In the middle and at the end of every semester, the faculty members meet to debrief each other on what’s going right and what’s going wrong. In the short term, this information helps instructors prepare for the next semester, as they learn which pedagogical devices work for a cohort and which ones don’t. In the longer term, it helps us redesign our courses for the next year.

For instance, during the debriefing sessions, we learned that the noncredit statistics class that was offered during orientation wasn’t sufficiently preparing students for the more quantitative courses they would take later. Therefore, we’ve enhanced it and made statistics a for-credit course. This meant reducing the credit hours in other aspects of the formal program.

In addition to meeting frequently with faculty, we constantly collect feedback from our students. We conduct formal class evaluations at the end of each term, but we also gather feedback every fourth week, and we distribute the results to all the instructors. Last spring, at the end of the semester, we had a town hall meeting to let students know how we were using their comments to improve the program.

Sharing this information with students accomplishes two things. One, it increases their sense of responsibility and gives them a stake in the future of the school, so they take seriously the job of giving us feedback. We tell them, “You’re putting your fingerprints on the program.

Two, it allows us to make mistakes. Students don’t expect a perfect program; they know they’ve signed up for a work in progress. We tell them, “We’re not going to pretend we know everything. In fact, we’ll tell you when we’re shooting in the dark. You need to tell us whether or not we hit the mark.” This co-evolution process can be as painful as pulling teeth without anesthesia. But when it works, it’s gratifying.

Prepared for Work

Four years ago, the Global MBA was barely an outline on a piece of paper. Next spring, our first graduates will set out into the business world. We hope we have given them the best possible preparation for thriving in that world. Like business schools everywhere, we plan to continually adjust our program to reflect the needs of our students, the needs of the organizations that hire them, and the constantly shifting realities of the global marketplace.