Joel M. Podolny, Dean of the Yale School of Management, contributed the op-ed “Transforming the MBA for the 21st Century” to the Economic Times, India’s leading business newspaper. The commentary is the first to be published under a new partnership with the Economic Times in which Yale School of Management and Yale University faculty will contribute monthly editorials to the newspaper’s “View Point” column.
Published in the Economic Times on April 28, 2008
Read the article in its original context on the Economic Times website.
The traditional two-year MBA curriculum, grounded in the functional disciplines — marketing, accounting, finance and so on — has been in existence since it was pioneered in the United States in the late 1950s.
But today, the world of business education — which has historically been very resistant to large-scale change — is on the verge of transformation, a transformation that is as significant for the business education industry as the many industry changes that have taken place as a result of technological advances in the wake of the rise of the Internet. While the final contour of this transformation is still an open question, the fact of the transformation is remarkable in and of itself.
In recent weeks, I have taken part in two events that further illustrate the significance of this fundamental shift. One was an international symposium of business school deans and senior faculty hosted at the Yale School of Management campus; there were 20 institutions (including three from India) from 13 different countries around the world — all of them were struggling with the relevance of the MBA to 21st century organizations. The second was a conference on the future of the MBA hosted at the Harvard Business School, again with deans and senior faculty from around the world well represented.
At both conferences, it was clear that some schools are already transforming, while others are still planning their next steps. Almost without exception, however, all see that the world of business education is changing — and indeed, it must change — in fundamental ways. In less than a month, the IESE Business School in Barcelona will host a conference on the future of leadership and the role of business schools. Again, deans of leading business schools will interact with business leaders to consider how business schools must change to better prepare our students for the challenges that they will face as professional managers.
There are two fundamental drivers behind the demand for changes in business education and MBA curricula. The first is that the world of management has changed tremendously from the 1950s. Then, a typical manager could spend his or her entire career within a single function — say, marketing or finance — of a large bureaucratic organization.
There was thus a strong alignment between these careers and MBA curricula that were siloed by related disciplines. But organizations have become increasingly flat, and the leaders of modern enterprises competing in the global economy are looking for managers who are capable of leading and managing across the boundaries of function, geography, and sometimes even organization, industry, and sector. Let me give you a local example of this: when I visited in Bangalore in late 2007, I toured the technology unit of Target India. It was striking the degree to which Target India employees were expected to understand the mindset of North American customers, and not simply rely on a marketing unit in North America to provide that key information.
The second driver is that today’s students learn in a way wholly different from the way students learned in the 1950s or even in the 1980s. The Internet, the 24-hour news cycle, the popularity of social networking, and almost instantaneous ‘on-demand’ access to knowledge have all contributed to a significant shift in the mindset and the learning process for the 20-somethings now entering our MBA programs.
No longer linear, but instead lateral, in their thought processes, they seem to think in hyperlinks, assembling information from multiple simultaneous inputs. In the 1990s, scholars and teachers interpreted this lateral mindset as a kind of intellectual laziness, but now, my colleagues and I are increasingly of the view that the students of today are actually quite focused and energetic.
They are willing to devote considerable effort to wade through vast amounts of material from disparate sources; they may even work harder than students of a few decades ago. They just don’t want to focus on any one piece of material (say a 50-page article or a 20-page case) for a considerable period of time.
So, both MBA customers (the corporations that hire MBAs) and MBA clients (the students who pursue MBAs) are primed for programs that develop and refine lateral thinking and co-ordination capabilities. But many traditional, functionally defined business school curricula get in the way of this reality. New methodologies and new approaches to MBA pedagogy that more accurately reflect the demands of the contemporary work environment and the realities of the current MBA student population are urgently needed.
Many schools are developing such new tools and techniques, but one example of such a new approach is a reinterpretation of the traditional business school case format developed over the last year at the Yale School of Management.
This new format, which we informally call, the “raw case,” is delivered online to make use of the multimedia capabilities of the Internet, and presents a complex (and often real-world, in almost real-time) business situation.
The raw case conveys material through a variety of perspectives and data streams that can include original source documents such as 10-K filings and analyst reports, news media reports (print and broadcast), faculty-authored notes and background readings, scholarly articles, interview videos or transcripts with the parties involved, as well as other multimedia tools, such as Google maps. Raw cases consist of hundreds, even thousands, of “pages” of data. So, in addition to the lateral synthesis of many disparate piece of information, part of the student’s assignment is determining the most effective allocation of time and attention in order to answer the assigned question or perform the required analysis.
Just as this kind of case presents new opportunities and avenues for students to learn, we are finding that these new cases are rewarding for the faculty who teach them, as well. This kind of content-rich format presents many opportunities for co-teaching, or for team teaching with faculty from different disciplines.
At the Yale School of Management, we have found that when we structure courses and materials for team teaching, we enable both faculty and students to break out of the conventional mindsets that get in the way of appreciating complex management problems. Even more than that, many of our professors report that this format creates renewed excitement in the classroom for teacher and student alike.
We call this innovative new teaching tool the “raw case” to distinguish it from more traditional “cooked” business cases that deliver a particular business problem, and all the data required to analyze and solve that problem (usually from the perspective of a single discipline such as marketing or finance) in a self-contained document that is typically 10 to 20 pages long. This is not to suggest that “cooked” cases are not still useful teaching tools: for almost a century, the traditional business school case has provided countless MBA students with key insights and approaches to analyzing and solving specific business problems in a convenient and well-defined format.
Nevertheless, we know that many business problems today are neither convenient nor well-defined. While the traditional business school case will continue to be a stalwart of the MBA curriculum, we believe that there is room — and necessity — for this new “raw case” format to help develop the lateral thinking skills and essential habits of mind — both the analytic discipline and the synthetic creativity — essential for today’s successful business leaders.
Whatever new approaches to curriculum or pedagogy are adopted, they will only succeed to the degree that they address the changed realities of 21st century organizations and 21st century learning. But regardless of what innovations take hold, it is clear that in order to maintain its relevance and to achieve its highest aims, the MBA education of this century will be — must be — very different from the MBA education of the last century.
The author is Dean and William S. Beinecke Professor of Management, Yale School of Management.