Thinking Small

With strategic use of faculty and allocation of resources, small schools can achieve large-scale innovation. How do small-sized business schools produce large-scale innovation? Deans from five schools share their most creative strategies.
Thinking Small
MANY BUSINESS SCHOOLS face obstacles to innovation, but those obstacles can loom larger for small to mid-sized business schools. But that doesn’t mean that business schools with few faculty and resources to draw upon cannot be innovative—only that they must be more careful about what new ideas they pursue.

“We don’t have money specifically earmarked for an ‘innovation fund,’ but we try to help faculty find resources for ideas consistent with our mission,” says Michael Hargis, dean of the University of Central Arkansas (UCA) College of Business in Conway. “We use our mission, vision, and values to drive our allocation of resources, whether that means people, money, or space.”

Small-school deans also point out two advantages their institutions have over larger business schools, and how those advantages can be effectively channeled to support innovation. First, a small institution’s close-knit community can lead to a more free-flowing exchange of ideas, says Virginia Lasio, dean of ESPAE Graduate School of Management of Escuela Superior Politécnica del Litoral in Guayaquil, Ecuador. “Our faculty interact more as a whole, providing greater space for collaborative innovation.”

Lasio adds that because ESPAE has only 23 research faculty, 24 practitioner faculty, and just over 300 students, each member of its community is likely to participate in school initiatives. In fact, several projects in the school’s current strategic plan were proposed by staff, not faculty or administrators; those staff members are now leading those projects.

Second, smaller business schools often can adopt changes more quickly than larger schools, because they have fewer stakeholders to reach consensus. “Our faculty is not made up of hundreds of people,” says Richard Moran, dean of Menlo College in Atherton, California. “As a small college, we can move quickly and allocate resources quickly. Innovation is not at the fringes of our college. It’s at the heart of the college.”

Moran and several other small-school deans recently shared their best strategies for taking advantage of their strengths to spark greater innovation. In fact, they say, small schools can create innovative opportunities not in spite of their modest size, but because of it.


With only 40 full-time faculty and 800 students, Menlo College could easily be overshadowed by Stanford University just four miles away. But Menlo sets itself apart from Stanford’s large size and powerhouse reputation by forging its own niche. As a small liberal arts college, Menlo focuses solely on undergraduate education in business, entrepreneur- ship, and innovation, and it takes full advantage of its location.

“Our campus is at ground zero for Silicon Valley. We have students with internships at Facebook who can ride their bicycles to get there,” says Moran.

Menlo’s staff always are on the look-out for opportunities to “open the flood-gates,” he adds, to keep a constant flow of local innovators coming to campus. For example, Menlo invites companies to use its campus as a beta testing site for new products—so far, companies have experimented with everything from a robot delivery service to new educational technologies. These beta tests, says Moran, have resulted in an influx of new ideas that “has proven to be a constant field experiment for all of our students.”


Menlo brings innovators to campus in another unexpected way: For the last few years, the school has held what it calls its Entrepreneurial Summer Concert Series. Every other Friday throughout the summer, bands made up of employees from nearby high-tech companies come to campus to play music. These free outdoor concerts are open to the public, so that local residents attend with their pets and picnics. For the summer’s final concert, acapella groups from local companies go head-to-head in a “Pitch Perfect”-style competition.

The idea for the concerts was spurred by the fact that many computer programmers are musical, playing in bands in their free time. “One week it will be the band from Google, the next it will be the band from Yahoo, the next it will be the band from SurveyMonkey,” says Moran. “This is a fun way to orient innovators to our campus and expose our students to a lot of cool people.”

The concerts cost very little to host but have a large impact on forging relationships between Menlo and local businesses, says Moran. Smaller business schools do not always need big budgets or staffs to deliver effective innovation, he adds. They might need only to find new ways to open their doors to the surrounding community.

“If a faculty member meets someone from Google’s finance group during a concert, he’s much more likely to invite that person to class to speak about finance at Google,” says Moran. “Cultivating these relationships isn’t like It’s more like sending people out into the bushes, where they can make those types of connections. This approach is working for us.”


In 2016, ESPAE defined a new mission statement and strategic plan, which emphasized sustainability in its teaching, research, and administration. The school made this shift for two reasons, explains Xavier Ordeñana Rodríguez, academic director and professor of international business. First, its faculty and administrators wanted to differentiate ESPAE in the market. Second, ESPAE’s redefined mission would both concentrate the school’s focus on innovation and complement its efforts to integrate into its curriculum more content related to sustainability—a key topic for the local agricultural industry.

The school has taken several steps to reinforce its strategic plan. In May 2016, ESPAE launched a master’s program in agribusiness. In addition, students and faculty from multiple programs have collaborated to host a symposium on sustainable innovation, which attracted more than 100 participants from business, government, and academia.

Last year, 20 faculty members also attended a seminar to deepen their understanding of sustainability, so they could better incorporate the topic into their courses. So far, several professors have incorporated sustainability into their syllabi, and many will follow over the next year, says Rodríguez.

ESPAE’s focus on sustainability now serves as the foundation for greater innovation in local urban development, says Lasio. The school recently began to participate in Competitive Cities, a World Bank-led program that focuses on innovation and growth in urban centers—particularly those that aren’t the most prominent cities in their countries. Last December, ESPAE worked with the World Bank, along with Guayaquil’s city council and chamber of industry, to organize a two-day workshop to design a competitive strategy for the city.

“Our main role has been to connect city hall, the chamber of industry, academe, and business,” says Lasio. Next, the school plans to launch an initiative called “Social Boot Camp,” in which students, alumni, and faculty will complete consulting projects for base-of-the-pyramid entrepreneurs in Guayaquil.


Serving the needs of the community is the philosophy at American University of Beirut’s Olayan School of Business in Lebanon, which has about 55 faculty members, 1,000 undergraduate students, and 200 graduate students. Steve Harvey, the Olayan School’s dean, has been working with faculty members to determine what strategic direction the school can take to maximize its positive impact on businesses in Lebanon.

Part of that strategy will be to focus on the school’s strengths in entrepreneurship, family business, analytics, and gender and equity in the workplace—all areas of increasing importance to Middle Eastern businesses. Another part will be to experiment more with blended and online formats, as a way to attract a more globally diverse student body.

“I know I have to make it clear that we’re developing a common vision together. It needs to be a vision that makes sense to me, to our professors and students, to our advisory board, and to the community in which we work. It also needs to reflect our hope to make an impact on the world of business and business literature,” says Harvey. “Rather than tell people, ‘This is where we’re going,’ I want us to take a look at new possibilities together.”

The UCA College of Business has a similar region-based mission. As a mid- sized college with 55 full-time faculty, 1,700 undergraduate students, and 100 graduate students, the school directs its efforts to strengthening partnerships with regional employers and tailoring its programs to meet their needs. The school is located in a suburb of Arkansas’ capital city of Little Rock, a hub for tech-oriented companies that specialize in areas such as data analytics and digital marketing. For that reason, many of the school’s programs also have a clear tech focus.

Arkansas also has a thriving logistics industry, and the college has responded by opening a research center in logistics and hiring a new faculty member with a background in logistics and supply chain management. Both moves are to prepare the school to offer a new major in the subject. The college operates three other centers dedicated to region-specific topics, including regional economics, small business advancement, and insurance and risk management. The centers help the school build partnerships with local business, identify topics to integrate into the curriculum, and maximize the impact of its research.

“Resources are always constrained, particularly in a small school like ours, so we use each of our centers as a pass-through point,” says Hargis. “This helps ensure that we’re conducting research that has an impact on our classrooms and creating innovative experiences for our students.” The school does not employ full-time center directors, but asks faculty to serve as points of contact and coordinate center activities as part of their service obligations to the school.

Likewise, UCA focuses any new degree program on regional needs. At a recent meeting between its management information systems (MIS) department and representatives from 16 regional employers, MIS faculty learned that while Arkansas-based companies could find traditional programmers and business analysts, they were having trouble hiring candidates with skills in both areas. That led to UCA’s launch of an undergraduate major in information systems, in which students learn a combination of information systems and computer science skills.

The UCA College of Business plans to further strengthen its regional ties through its recent launch of Arkansas Conductor, a private-public partnership designed to involve the business community more fully in activities such as a new venture competition, a hackathon, a mentorship network, and internships. A website,, serves as an online hub to drive these connections. Sponsored by the university, Arkansas Conductor is meant to spark engagement among students, faculty, and the business community. “Smaller business schools must have a centrality of purpose,” Hargis says. “Because the vast majority of our students will end up working in the region, our location drives the relevance of our programs.”


Small business schools that innovate successfully have learned another important lesson: Large innovation doesn’t necessarily have to happen in one fell swoop. Rather, it can be built incrementally, often from smaller successful programs that already exist.

For example, in 2013, ESPAE started a one-day program event called “Science and Technology Day,” during which EMBA students visited ESPOL’s science and engineering research centers and labs. The goal was threefold: to strengthen links between the business school and other departments, to expose students to university innovations, and to make the program more interdisciplinary.

Science and Technology Day offered valuable experiential learning to students, but its impact on the greater community was limited, says Rodríguez. For that reason, the school wanted to integrate the experience into the curriculum in a more structured way.

Starting this September, the one- day event will be expanded into a full practicum called “Business Opportunities in Science and Technology.” Students will start the practicum in a first-year entrepreneurship course, when they will make their center visits. Soon after, they will attend a boot camp alongside researchers from the centers and local firms who have ideas ready for commercialization. In their second year, students will work with those researchers to take those ideas to market.

In effect, ESPAE will parlay a one-day event into a long-term technology transfer and commercialization initiative that promises to have measurable impact on the entire region. Science and Technology Day also inspired the school to add a minor in innovation to its EMBA program in December 2016.

A similar progression occurred at UCA, which recently added an innovation and entrepreneurship major that grew from existing coursework. “Three years before we added the major, we added a new venture creation course,” says Hargis. “When we saw how students gravitated toward that, we added a product development course. We had pieces of the major already in place before we invested in faculty and space.”

When schools focus on incremental innovation of existing programs—rather than full-scale transformations or shifts in direction—it can take much of the pressure off the budget, as well as off faculty and staff who do not need to think of the “next huge thing,” says Hargis. “For us, it’s nice to focus on achieving sustained, continuous improvement over time, rather than trying for the moon shot. In today’s higher education environment, schools don’t necessarily have to aim for discontinuous innovation where they’re always trying something transformational and new.”


When Sylvia Maxfield became dean of the Providence College School of Business in Rhode Island in 2012, she wanted to set up a self-sustaining program that would improve students’ experiences in the classroom. She and the school’s faculty decided that the best way to do so was to “see the impact of faculty’s teaching through their students’ eyes,” Maxfield says. That realization inspired the creation of the Innovation Fellows program in 2013. Faculty at the school view the program as a way to crowd-source new ideas for teaching.

Here’s how it works: Students can approach their professors with ideas for innovations to improve their courses. If professors like the ideas, they can apply to select these students as Innovation Fellows. Once selected as fellows, students spend the next year helping faculty implement those suggestions. Every year, the school chooses up to five Innovation Fellows, who each receive a modest stipend of US$500 as well as compelling experience to add to their résumés.

So far, Innovation Fellows have helped faculty implement a range of new approaches, such as integrating game play into the syllabus, devising a completely new set of teaching materials, and embedding a national case competition into a marketing course. Any new multi- media tools created by faculty and their fellows are added to a shared “teaching toolkit,” which other faculty can use to supplement their own teaching.

This year, Maxfield worked with her own Innovation Fellow, who had suggested that students might not be able to relate to cases Maxfield had been using in her business ethics class. Together, they compiled a list of popular books and movies with ethical dilemmas in the storylines, specifically including works that resonate with today’s undergraduates.

For example, Maxfield now draws upon the Pixar movie “Monsters Inc.” to analyze ethical dilemmas. “We use the movie to explore philosophical questions. I’ll ask students to identify which character uses a utilitarian framework and which character uses a justice framework,” says Maxfield. “For this assignment, we’ll be talking less about applied business ethics and more about providing a way for students to identify different moral reasoning frameworks we have talked about in class.”

Bringing students into the curriculum design process provides a valuable—and affordable—kind of “free labor,” says Maxwell. The fellows help faculty who might be struggling in the classroom curate new materials, design new assignments, or come up with completely new approaches to teaching. “This is a way for students to take ownership of their learning experiences,” Maxwell emphasizes. “Instead of students telling us, ‘I don’t like that professor’s teaching style’ or ‘I didn’t learn anything in that course,’ they can channel that energy into helping that faculty member improve the course for future students. We’ve flipped the coaching model so that our students essentially coach our faculty.”


It might seem that adding a new major or program would require hiring new faculty or designing additional courses, but UCA added its innovation and entrepreneurship major, mentioned earlier, by adjusting the timing and organization of existing courses. “In most cases, the same faculty members are teaching courses we already were offering—we have just packaged things differently,” Hargis explains. “In some cases, we’ve looked for overlap and found ways to create one class out of two, or we can see from student enrollments that we can offer a course in the fall or spring only, rather than every semester.”

When Menlo College wanted to add a mandatory internship requirement for all of its students, its administrators’ first challenge was to determine how to pay someone to coordinate the program. They were able to add the comprehensive requirement by reallocating resources that had been previously directed to its career placement office. That involved reassigning one staff member and changing the office’s focus from finding job placements for seniors to helping students find internships the summer after their junior years.

That move turned out to have unintended beneficial consequences, says Moran. “As a result of the internships, most of our students now graduate with at least one job offer in hand. Some even enter their senior year with jobs as a result of their internships.” In many ways, the internship program has turned out to be a more effective job placement service than what Menlo had before, Moran says.

The mandatory internships now are integral to Menlo’s brand. “It has be- come an effective tool for recruiting new students,” says Moran. “When students come back senior year, after they’ve finished their summer internships, they have a different perspective on what a business degree is all about. They’ve just spent eight weeks at real businesses doing real business work.”


One of the most effective ways to encourage innovation in a small-school environment—or in any organization—is possibly also the least expensive: Offer public opportunities for faculty and students to share their best ideas.

For instance, the Providence College School of Business requires its Innovation Fellows to submit a poster to an annual, campus-wide event designed by Providence College to showcase research collaborations between students and faculty. The fellows’ posters describe their pedagogical collaborations with their professors.

UCA asks faculty to highlight their innovations in teaching, research, and service during their annual reviews. Then, at the start of the school year they are encouraged to share those ideas with their colleagues during the faculty’s annual kickoff event. Hargis points to a finance faculty member who recently began working with the retailer Target for her class. The company is supplying real-world cases for students to work on as part of an in-class case competition. At the time, she was the only professor to integrate experiential learning into her course via a competition. She shared her approach with other faculty, and today professors in information systems and accounting are doing the same.

"We make sure to celebrate success," says Hargis. "We've found that facilitating discussion around innovation has re­ally increased people's willingness to try new things and reduced the perceived barriers to innovation."


Small schools only have so much room in their course portfolios for new elective courses. But smaller schools can encourage faculty to integrate specialized learning experiences into their teaching more creatively, via extracurricular and co-curricular experiences.

"Everyone will be happier if we don't create a whole lot of new courses, because faculty won't have a lot of different preparations to make," says Maxfield of Providence College. "This works especially well on a vibrant liberal arts campus, where students can explore other topics of interest by taking courses in other departments. As a small school, we can't have an elective that only enrolls ten students, but we can start a speaker series or plan a field trip or arrange for other experiential learning opportunities."

She emphasizes that it can be especially critical for small schools to formally build innovation into their programs and structure—that's why her business school established a chair position to oversee the teaching of innovation. Funded by a modest endowment, the chair holder mentors Innovation Fellows and oversees an annual national Best Paper award for papers describing innovations in business education.

"We wanted to promote the idea that there's always room to innovate in business education and to shine attention on the fact that this was something we care about," says Maxfield.

Maxfield and her fellow deans agree that, when it comes to achieving large­ scale innovation, the capacity of small business schools is often underestimated-sometimes by small business schools themselves. But when administrators and faculty are willing to look at their strategies a little differently, they can make innovation an essential part of their small-school brands.