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Business Schools Begin To Revamp The MBA

There are fears that the traditional MBA curriculum no longer represents business reality, but schools are adapting – rolling out revamped programs focused on entrepreneurship and leadership.

Thu Aug 7 2014

Learning the lines of Shakespeare's As You Like It does not sound like part of a traditional MBA curriculum. Twenty-first century business schools, however, are keen to test strange new teaching methods in a bid to adapt to a changing business landscape.

Warwick Business School students rolled out the famous playwright’s production earlier this year, using creative techniques to encourage learning, and develop the art of decision making in the business world.

The MBA’s rendition is part of a wider bid to break down silos in the teaching of the core curriculum, and pivot learning techniques in light of radically altered business environment.

“Our hope is that in becoming artistic actors our students also become more effective social actors – doers and shapers,” says Jonothan Neelands, Professor of Creative Education at the top-ranking UK business school.

“It gives students the confidence, resilience, communication and presentation skills that are essential to their employability and future success,” he adds.

Most MBA curriculums have remained rigid – they follow a neatly packaged cadre of disciplines such as marketing and finance, and offer electives to cater for more unusual tastes and specializations.

But in today’s environment, roles no longer slot into pigeon holes. Business managers are required to handle a diverse range of issues, and are required to perform well in a wide range of functions.

The business world is experiencing a period of unprecedented transformation, says Peter Tufano, Dean of Oxford’s Saїd Business School.

A changing economy means executives must take on additional roles. “This environment needs individuals who can inspire and influence a wide range of stakeholders, and who can demonstrate responsible leadership in the face of complex and often conflicting interests,” he adds.

MBA students are also more interested in pursuing new-fangled career paths, which are often not on the main menu – including social impact, entrepreneurship and healthcare management.

“They form part of that great citizen’s movement that has emerged and is trying desperately to change the status quo,” says Pamela Hartigan, the director behind the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at Saïd Business School, of the rise of social entrepreneurs.

“It’s a competitive market for MBAs, and that’s why it’s so critical to pick an MBA designed to get them to that next position,” says Professor Brian Golden, who heads the Centre for Health Sector Strategy at Rotman School of Management.

Students can major in healthcare management – a career that has been gaining ground in light of the financial crisis, but that has not always been the case. “Historically, the best and the brightest managers go into consulting firms and Wall Street, not healthcare,” Professor Brian adds.

Yet business schools have begun adapting. Some are adding new, untraditional experiences in the form of one-off programs and field trips.

Warwick’s foray into theatre production is one example, while a troop of students at the Dolan School of Business recently built Lego structures to promote cross-disciplinary learning.

Rotman has taken a different approach to MBA learning. The Canadian-based business school uses a form of pedagogy called “integrative thinking” – students only embark on traditional business functions once they have gone through a series of courses introducing decision-making tools.

The Centre for Integrative Thinking was given a boost with a $10 million gift from the Canadian Credit Management Foundation.

“As global business becomes increasingly complex, formulaic approaches to problem solving are increasingly ineffective,” said Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School, at the time.

“Success in today’s environment does not result from emulating others but from using organizational assets to build unique models, products and experiences.”

Some schools have revamped their entire curriculums to meet today’s business needs. Last year, Oxford began a thorough review of its MBA curriculum to assess its relevance. The result: a radically overhauled program with a focus on entrepreneurship and global leadership.

“Like all business schools, we make ongoing adjustments to our programs to keep in step with changes in the external business environment,” says Dean Peter.

A wider range of electives will be offered, including a selection of inter-disciplinary and jointly developed courses that bring in knowledge from the wider Oxford University.

Students can now choose from a menu of “talent development” options including presentation skills, networking, time management, personal impact and confidence.

“We believe that future business leaders will be confronted with these complex global issues, and firms will require people who have a wide range of skills and abilities to navigate the challenging landscape of global business,” says Dr Dana Brown, MBA program director.

Another approach is to form partnerships with other sections of the university. The Tepper School of Business has formed a new Integrated Innovation Institute, bringing together MBA students, as well as students from its College of Engineering and its School of Design.

At Oxford, the approach has been to combine its MBA curriculum with the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship and the Entrepreneurship Centre. “Entrepreneurship is a mind-set from which all organisations doing business in the 21st century can benefit,” says Dr Brown.

But many schools will find it difficult to overhaul entrenched MBA curriculums. Dean Tufano admits some might question Oxford’s revamp. “After all, the program was running really well,” he says.

The school wanted to ensure that the MBA would fulfil the needs of its students – today. “Put simply, we wanted to future-proof the Oxford MBA,” adds Dean Tufano.

It has become increasingly competitive for business schools to secure the best candidates. A shift to cheaper online learning and the proliferation of Moocs – massive online open courses – has meant that it is now difficult to justify an MBA’s expensive sticker price.

Adapting new learning techniques is one way for schools to stay ahead of the pack.

But innovation in the core curriculum will no doubt better equip students for modern business realities.

“Knowledge in these areas is relevant whether you are working in finance or social enterprise, in a big firm or small firm – anywhere in the world,” adds Dr Dana.

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Carnegie Mellon: Tepper




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