Re-Envisioning the MBA

Educators gathered at a recent symposium to discuss how they can reinvent the MBA curriculum—perhaps drastically—to satisfy the demands of global business.
Re-Envisioning the MBA

Recruiters have made it clear that they expect certain skills from today’s business school graduates. They want students with a deep understanding of global complexities. The creativity to think of innovative solutions to complex problems. The ability to recognize the ethical dilemmas that pervade business situations. And the willingness to speak and act according to their principles, even in the face of opposition. The question is, can schools achieve all of these priorities in a single MBA program?

Over two days in March, more than 200 attendees and 14 presenters at the “Redesigning the MBA: A Curriculum Development Symposium” delved deeply into this question, discussing current best practices in curricular redesign. Held in Tampa, Florida, the inaugural symposium was sponsored by AACSB International and developed jointly by AACSB’s Patrick G. Cullen and Harvard Business School’s Srikant M. Datar and David A. Garvin. Datar, Garvin, and Cullen co-authored the book Rethinking the MBA: Business Education at a Crossroads. The event included introductory and concluding sessions, as well as five presentation sessions, each tackling a topic of importance to the business curriculum: globalization, leadership development, innovation and creativity, critical thinking and communication, and experiential learning.

The symposium was an extension not just of the ideas in Rethinking the MBA, but also of AACSB’s 2010 report, “Globalization of Management Education: Changing International Structures, Adaptive Strategies, and the Impact on Institutions.” Presenter Pankaj Ghemawat, a professor of strategic management at IESE in Barcelona, Spain, and a contributor to the AACSB report, made curricular redesign a matter of urgency. “It’s very easy for programs in curricular reform to become five- to ten year projects,” he said. But given that business schools have fallen behind industry in key areas, he added, it’s imperative that schools find ways to quickly develop and deploy newly designed management programs that meet the needs of business.

Exercise in Reflection

To encourage reflection and self-awareness, the University of Colorado at Boulder Leeds School of Business asks students taking courses through its Center for education on Social responsibility to write a paper on an ethical dilemma, and then rewrite that paper once they’ve finished the course. The aim of the exercise is to show students not only how much they’ve learned, but how far they’ve come as leaders since the first day of class.

Opening Remarks

In the opening session, Garvin noted that current MBA models are quickly losing their relevance in the eyes of society. “A decade ago, the MBA was the ‘golden pass-port.’ It was the ticket to the job of your choice,” he said. But debacles in companies such as Enron and Lehman Brothers have led society to question whether the analytical approaches prevalent in today’s business programs are sufficient to pr-pare graduates to lead. The future of business schools “is not as rosy as it used to be,” Garvin emphasized.

In fact, without significant changes to the MBA curriculum, business schools are likely to see enrollment rates in full-time programs drop. Garvin presented data from Rethinking the MBA showing that full-time MBA enrollments at the top 20 U.S. business schools were essentially flat between 200 and 2008—increasing from about 16,000 to only about 16,500. The next 16 ranked U.S. schools and top European schools saw significant declines. This pattern has occurred even as schools were relaxing their admission standards to encourage higher enrollments, Garvin said.

Part of the problem is that companies are hiring fewer MBA graduates. Many are opting instead to hire graduates from quantitative disciplines such as math, physics, and computer science. Growth, however, has occurred in part-time and executive MBA programs, which denotes a shift in the marketplace, away from traditional formats. That means that business schools may need to shift their focus as well to prove the value of an MBA education, Garvin argued.

Garvin pointed to pedagogy designed by the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. In an overhaul of its curriculum, West Point decided to adopt a model of leadership that already had long been in use in Army training. The model centers around three components: knowing, doing, and being. Business schools have focused a great deal on imparting knowledge, but not enough on the last two parts of the equation—providing students with opportunities to “do,” or apply what they learn, and “be,” or develop an understanding of their own values and impacts on the world.

The redesigned MBA curricula discussed at the symposium have one thing in common, said Datar: They rely very little on lecture and much more on experiential learning and reflection—the “doing” and “being” components. Rather than analyze case studies, students work in multidisciplinary environments as members of teams as they identify problems and test solutions.

“Our students must get far better at connecting to people who are very different from themselves,” said Datar. As business schools redesign their curricula, it is imperative for schools to include experiential team projects and global experiences that place students face to face with diverse individuals, he and other presenters reiterated They stressed that when students learn to appreciate what challenges and motivates everyone in an organization—regardless of discipline, position, or culture—it only strengthens their capacity to lead.

Global Immersion

The redesigned International Business Core at the University of South Carolina Moore School of Business will require students to be or become fluent in a second language—first-years without this capability must take a summer immersion course before their program begins and a maintenance course in the fall. These experiences will prepare them for a four-month in-country immersion program during the second quarter of the spring semester. In the core courses, students study a specific country to learn its political, social, and economic climate on its own terms, as free as possible from their “home-country biases,” says Kendall Roth. “We think that it’s fundamental to be ‘in country’ to achieve cultural intelligence, and we think the language is the way you open up another culture.”

Getting Serious About Globalization

It’s no surprise that the topic of globalization sparked some of the most energetic dialogue during the symposium, as attendees debated best practices in teaching global awareness to business students. While attendees were in agreement that globalization should be well-integrated into the business curriculum, they wondered how most schools—especially smaller schools or those with limited resources—could achieve comprehensive global leadership programs.

Many speakers talked about starting small, whether schools want to globalize their programs or make other sweeping curricular changes. For example, some noted that short-term international trips are one way for any school to begin building a global curriculum. But Ghemawat argued that if schools want to truly globalize their programs, they would need to expand to longer, more curriculum-driven experiences over time. Weeklong study trips to different countries may have value to the individual, he said, but as educational experiences, “they amount to little more than business tourism.”

Ghemawat also noted that most first-year MBA students significant overestimate the percentage of business transactions that are global. Few understand that most global trade occurs on a “local” level, geographically or culturally—that is, between countries with a com-mon characteristic, such as a border, language, currency, or history. To be adept global strategists, he said, students must realize that the farther from home businesses reach—geographically, culturally, or ideologically—the more their business models might need to be modified.

Kendall Roth, professor and chair of international business and economics at the University of South Carolina’s Moore School of Business in Columbia, argued that all business schools should aim to instill students with a global awareness, while schools with global missions will want to go further to give students a richer understanding of individual global contexts. He added that it’s important to differentiate between “globalization” and “international business” in the curriculum. That is, globalization refers to “supranational” issues that affect all nations, such as rules of global trade, trends in foreign direct investment, and the effects of fair trade. International business, on the other hand, refers to the specific transactions that result when businesses cross a border to enter another country.

Roth also noted that a bigger question for business schools, especially those in the West, is to what extent Western models of capitalism should prevail in the world, let alone in a global business curriculum. He pointed out that while many West-ern economies were hit hard by the recent financial crisis, others—such as those of China and many Islamic countries—weren’t as negatively affected. He suggested that it might be time for business school administrators and educators to examine whether alternatives are as good as, or even better than, Western models.

Lead, Innovate, Reflect

Other dimensions of the curriculum also took center stage at the symposium. Speakers described how their schools taught a range of skills that are growing ever more critical to business, including creativity, critical thinking, communication, personal reflection, and responsible leadership.

Leadership. Many presenters made the case for infusing into the curriculum hands-on leader-ship experiences, such as real-life consulting projects and management simulations. Such infusion is critical if schools want ethical leadership to be “part of a student’s DNA,” said presenter Donna Sockell, director of the Center for Education on Social Responsibility at the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “A one-off program is just that—one-off. You can break it off, and your program is the same,” she said. “That’s the opposite of what we want to do.”

Lesson in Leadership

Stanford graduate School of Business in California now requires all first-year MBAs to take its leadership labs course. The course includes a series of ten labs and incorporates exercises and simulations that target different skill sets. In the first six labs, student work with the school’s Arbuckle Leadership Fellows to focus on experiential learning, team development and management, and feedback. In the final four, they work with faculty on ways to approach hiring and firing, motivating staff, setting priorities, and managing change and crisis.

The Arbuckle Leadership Fellows program was launched in 2007 as part of Stanford’s new curriculum. Stanford chooses 48 leadership Fellows among its second-year MBAs to complete a curriculum that includes rigorous training and self-assessment to help them to become strong mentors for the leadership labs. The relationship between the two programs not only helps the Fellows develop an added dimension of leadership experience, but also provides the manpower required to offer the labs to the entire first-year MBA cohort.

Even so, some warned that infusion must be done deliberately, otherwise there’s a risk that “infusion will become a synonym for invisibility,” which can result in a loss of focus and momentum. For that reason, presenters and a few members of the audience argued that it’s best for schools to take both approaches—designing flagship courses and electives while also integrating the themes of those courses throughout the core curriculum.

Innovation and creativity. Innovation is now a subject in many business programs, but perhaps it’s time schools viewed innovation as a discipline in itself, argued Vish Krishnan of the Rady School of Management at the University of California, San Diego. He described Rady’s yearlong three-course sequence called “Lab to Market,” which is required for all MBAs and runs parallel with other core classes. In the first course, the students learn methods of ideation, research and development, and prototyping. In the next two courses, student teams each develop an idea and write a business plan. Through-out the sequence, students are guided by faculty, practitioners, and venture capitalists.

Fred Collopy, chair of information systems at Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management in Cleveland, Ohio, discussed his school’s core curriculum, which is based on principles of sustainability and interdisciplinary design. He pointed to surveys of executives and recruiters that cite creativity as one of the most sought-after skills in the workplace. “The world is crying out for our young students to break out and present something new,” said Collopy.

Critical thinking and communication. Improving students’ critical thinking and communication skills has become essential, said Jackson Nickerson, professor of organization and strategy at Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. Nickerson discussed how the school requires all of its syllabi to include a critical thinking component. He also outlined Critical [email protected], an initiative that integrates problem formulation, problem-solving analytics, critical thinking techniques, and peer and self-assessment into electives and core courses. Since these changes were instituted four years ago, Olin’s placement rates have gone from percent-ages in the mid-80s to percentages in the mid-90s—even during the recession. The school credits that improvement, in part, to the new curriculum, said Nickerson.

Communications Boot Camp

Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis integrates critical thinking and problem formulation early in the MBA curriculum in an approach it calls Critical [email protected]. One feature of this approach is the GO!Program, a boot camp designed to break down and then rebuild students’ approaches to thinking in a process that includes argument writing and peer and self-assessment.

Within the GO!Program is a course called Critical thinking for leaders. As part of that course, students turn in their arguments online and are automatically assigned five of their peers’ papers to assess in return. They are required to provide their feed-back by the next morning, so that information can be used in class the next day. The rate of improvement in students’ arguments and feedback in a single week is “phenomenal,” Jackson Nickerson says.

Experiential learning. Attendees also were interested in how others were tackling the challenge of designing experiential, or “action-based,” learning activities for students. Representatives from the University of Michigan discussed their own hands-on learning projects (see “MAPs for Success,” page 30).

Michigan’s Eugene Anderson, senior associate dean of academic affairs at the Ross School of Business in Ann Arbor, emphasized that it “takes a village” to deliver comprehensive experiential learning opportunities. Even so, once such programs begin, they tend to gain momentum over time, as schools build stronger relationships with companies and alumni, and as faculty become more adept at delivering the content, Anderson added.

Moreover, when students learn to think across disciplines and work well in teams, employers notice. Three years ago, the Goizueta Business School at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, instituted a consulting project course called Management Practice. Since that time, it has seen a dramatic increase in the rate at which its students are offered jobs after internships, from 35 percent to about 60 percent.

A World View in Photos

Case Western Reserve University Weatherhead School of Business has incorporated into its design-based curriculum an exercise called “the cultural probe,” developed by Lucy Kimbell of the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School in the United Kingdom. Before students arrive on campus for their MBA programs, they receive a request from the school to compile photographs of products and services that they like, ones they dislike, ones that seem old-fashioned or futuristic, and so on. When they arrive with their photographs, they are put into groups and are asked to make sense of the photographs.

“Often it’s the first time they’ve really thought about what a product is or what a service is,” says Fred Collopy. “These exercises suggest that business isn’t all about analysis and decision making. We also have to make sense of the nature of the world.”

Concerns and Optimism

The symposium’s discussion was “the right conversation at the right time,” said JD Schramm, director of the Mastery in Communication Initiative and lecturer in organizational behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business in California. “We can’t deploy all of the things that we’re hearing about here, but we can take back what will work within our institutions.”

Even so, during question-and-answer periods, some attendees expressed concerns that many of the changes might be unrealistic, particularly for smaller schools. They wondered not only how to find the resources, but also how to motivate faculty to increase their workloads.

“We have to create different ways to engage faculty intellectually, and also connect these approaches to research,” said Shantanu Dutta, vice dean of the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business in Los Angeles. He noted that more journals are publishing articles about research related to pedagogy and practice, which could provide a greater incentive to faculty to participate in new curricular innovations. He added that schools could also encourage faculty members to travel along with colleagues who are leading students in global trips or observe them in experiential classrooms. Such exposure could help inspire their interest.

MAPs for success

The University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business requires all 500 of its first-year MBA students to participate in multi-Disciplinary action Projects (MAPs), two-month consulting projects. Offered in March and April at the end of the first year of the MBA program, MAP is considered a full course load, so students take no other courses.

The school starts preparing for MAP in august, when it begins to receive project proposals from companies. Faculty review the submissions and choose the projects most suitable for MAP by December. In January, students form five-person team and bid on the projects they’d most like to tackle. Once they’ve been assigned their projects, students attend weekly advising meetings with faculty and tap the expertise of research consultants, librarians, communication coaches, and second-year MBAs. The school integrates such milestones and points of contact to keep student teams on track. At the end of the course, students deliver their recommendations to the client.

In 2010, the school began to offer three-month summer action learning Projects (ALPs) for its BBA program, based on the MAP model.

The symposium’s call to action to reinvent the business curriculum was comprehensive, but even so, he moderators expressed optimism that business schools were headed in the right direction. But they also noted that the right direction today is likely to be different than the right one tomorrow, as the world’s business environment continues to shift on its axis.

That’s one of the reasons AACSB will offer a series of four seminars on curriculum development, all to be held at its headquarters in Tampa. Beginning this October, the seminars will provide a more intense and ongoing review of the topics discussed at the MBA symposium, including managing in a global context; experiential learning; critical thinking; and innovation, creativity, and design management. All subjects will be covered from the perspective of both MBA and undergraduate curricula.

The overarching message of this event was that such ongoing input and review will be critical for schools in the coming decade—and that business school administrators and faculty should view the redesign process as continuous, so that their programs remain flexible, relevant, and responsive to change.

Explorations in Analysis

Stanford graduate School of Business now requires its MBAs to complete the Critical analytical thinkers (Cat) course, part of the school’s curricular revamp launched in Fall 2007. Taught in 24 sections of 16 students each, Cat occurs in the first seven week of the MBA program. All of the sections are taught by tenured faculty partnered with a writing coach. The course includes no lectures, no exams, and no textbook.

Instead, for each of the first five weeks, students write three- to five-page argument papers on assigned topics. Students have access to writing workshops. In the sixth week, students write papers and give presentations that support arguments contrary to their own points of view; in the seventh week, students form teams of four to engage in debates. After Stanford offered Cat for the first time, a woman who had been grading strategy papers for years asked the professor what had happened, because the writing had improved so significant l, says JD Schramm. “We know that was the result of students having to write a weekly paper and getting feedback from a coach and a professor.”

Harvard Business School generously funded the videotaping of sessions throughout the “Redesigning the MBA” symposium. Those videos are available online at For more information about AACSB’s upcoming seminar series dedicated to curricular redesign, visit