Company Ties

A curriculum redesign offers the perfect opportunity for a Finnish business school to strengthen its connections to  industry.
Company Ties

Curricular development is a university’s most important core process, one that helps ensure that its pro-grams reflect the ongoing realities of business. At HAAGA-HELIA, a university of applied sciences in Helsinki, Finland, we’ve found that a curricular redesign is also an opportunity for a school to strengthen its corporate relationships.

Although our faculty have long histories with many of our industry contacts, we wanted to adopt a more proactive, organizational approach to corporate relations to ensure we were seeking out new partners on an ongoing basis. As part of our recent curriculum redesign, we took steps to involve industry more closely in our programs and create more opportunities to interact and pursue common goals with our corporate partners. In the process, we’ve made cooperation with industry a true hallmark of our program, which helps us better prepare our students for real-world business.

The Finnish Factor

Strengthening our corporate relation-ships was especially important given our school’s national context. Scandinavia, which comprises Finland, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, is home to a population of only 24 million people; of that number, Finland has only 5 million. These close quarters drive especially strong relationships between education and industry. In addition, hierarchies in Scandinavian companies tend to be quite low, making access to corporate leaders easier than it might be in other parts of the world.

The Finnish higher education system consists of two types of institutions: universities of scientific research and universities of applied sciences. The country’s 20 universities of scientific research focus on research-based instruction, while its 26 universities of applied sciences focus on practice-based education that supports the labor needs of the regional market, including degree programs, professional specializations, and adult education.

Universities of applied sciences also conduct research and development activities linked to the needs of industry. That Finland formed these institutions to address the needs of business shows how deeply this country is committed to graduating students with real-world skills. Serving 10,000 students on six campuses, HAAGA-HELIA is one of Finland’s largest universities of applied sciences and one of the largest providers of business education in Europe.

We offer 12 BBA and MBA programs in English, Finnish, and Swedish, in areas related to business administration, management assistant education, journalism, hospitality management, information technology, and sports management. Our 210-credit bachelor degree generally takes three and a half years to complete, with the first half of the program focusing on core business disciplines; and the second half, on electives, field study, and professional experience.

In 2007, HAAGA-HELIA’s board members laid out several general criteria for our curriculum redesign. First, they wanted HAAGA-HELIA to offer a minimum number of courses in applied research and language studies. Second, they wanted to allow students to personalize their programs. And, third, they wanted to standardize our course structures and module sizes so that credits could be exchanged across departments to support more customized curricula.

More important, given our role as a university of applied sciences, board members wanted us to deepen our commitment to industry by doing more to help our faculty and staff maintain current corporate contacts and reach out to new potential contacts on a continuous basis. In response, we formed 11 “competence teams” that each include lecturers within a given discipline, such as marketing and sales, human resource management, and foreign languages. Our competence teams coordinate development work within their own disciplines and between different disciplines. They also encourage faculty to develop their corporate connections throughout the year. Then, during our annual development meeting, each competence team reports the new industry contacts faculty and staff have made over the past year.

Getting Industry Involved

In 2008, we began our redesign efforts in earnest. The competence teams and a six-member task force, headed by the vice president, began their analysis of the present curriculum. They sent more than 2,600 questionnaires to current students and former graduates and surveyed current students. Our students’ most common request was to have more freedom of choice in their courses. In addition, so many students asked that we add new course content on the topic of purchasing management that we created a new course within our logistics module.

We also invited 78 representatives from our partner companies to participate in one of two three-hour workshops to discuss our programs. Most were from Finnish SMEs, but others were from larger companies such as Nokia, social game and online community firm Sulake, insurance company Fennia, and several major Finnish banks. During the workshops, we asked them questions such as “What can our curriculum do better?” and “What do you expect from us in the future?” We also formed discipline-specific delegations of businesspeople who offered additional guidance for specific competence areas. These participants asked us for more content related to project management, accounting skills, and intercultural communications. They wanted our courses to focus on practical issues, such as the legal requirements and implications of international marketing. They also thought we should place greater emphasis on areas such as internationalization, project management, cultural knowledge, online marketing, entrepreneurship, law, and logistics.

By including industry in our curriculum redesign, we strengthened our bond with partner companies, so that we receive corporate input on an ongoing basis, not just during a program re-evaluation. Now that they’re more familiar with our offerings, they initiate thesis projects, offer a greater number of internships, and provide more case studies to our students. Most important, many make the effort to keep in touch with us—we no longer have to be the first to contact them. That is exactly what we hoped for when we began this process.

Curricular Outcomes

Once we gathered feedback from our board, students, and partners, we delivered it all directly to the competence teams, which then made proposals for new curricular structures and frameworks. After 33 months of planning, the first student cohort enrolled in the new curriculum in the fall of 2010.  The biggest changes reflected in HAAGA-HELIA’s new curriculum include:

Customized Programs: While all of our students must take required courses, they now are encouraged to take courses from other disciplines—for example, students in sports management are free to take courses in hospitality if it suits their educational goals. All electives are offered at times when they are available to all students, regardless of the discipline. Approximately 60 percent of the students take advantage of these elective options.

Entrepreneurship: The Finnish government is a strong supporter of entrepreneurship, so we now require each course description to include explicit entrepreneurial content, and all first-year students must enroll in a required five-credit course on entrepreneurship. In addition, students have the option to develop business ideas into companies in our business incubator and participate in Startup School, a coaching and mentoring program.

Internationalization: All individual course descriptions must include explicit content that supports international business. Moreover, students are required to take courses to become proficient in at least three languages, as well as a course in cross-cultural management.

Research, Development, and Innovation (RD&I): Finally, all students must take courses in methodology and applied research. They also can opt to complete a 15- to 30-credit RD&I project to commercialize an idea for a product or service; in some situations, RD&I projects can replace traditional courses. Since the new curriculum’s first year, he number of students completing RD&I projects has gradually increased—approximately 10 percent now include an RD&I project in their personalized study plans.

Ongoing Effort

Now in its third year, our revised curriculum has received enthusiastic feedback from partner companies, students, faculty, and staff. More important, our faculty have increased their corporate contacts by approximately 30 percent. These additional contacts have led to a number of small-scale projects. Our next challenge is to increase the size and scope of those collaborations.

Through our focus on entrepreneurship and RD&I projects, we also have created more “landing spots” for corporate participation. Students have worked with companies on a range of RD&I projects, including an analysis of how Scandinavian businesses can increase their activity in Russia, a plan to better market Scandinavian design, and a report on ways to promote Arctic tourism. As we had hoped, our curriculum brings corporate involvement to the forefront of our activities.

We will continue to organize workshops  with executives to discuss our courses and keep them involved. By integrating such ongoing, formal activities into our curriculum, we can sustain and grow our corporate relationships and keep our programs dynamic, relevant, and deeply connected to business.

Teemu Kokko is vice president of HAAGA-HELIA—University of Applied Sciences in Helsinki, Finland.