Building a Better MBA
The MBA is in trouble. Organized and taught in the same way for generations, the traditional MBA program is increasingly anachronistic.
In most traditional institutions of higher education, an education is organized around functions. There is the marketing department, the finance department, the English department and so on. By declaring a major, a student enters a particular silo and then stays there until graduation. After graduation, the major is still a key part of the student’s professional identity – “She’s an economics major.” The silos become self-reinforcing as the worker enters the traditional bureaucratic organization – the accountants go to the accounting department, the marketers go to the marketing department. The big issues that business and society wrestle with do not come neatly packaged with departmental designations.
Bentley University is taking an innovative approach to organizing its flagship MBA program. (Bentley also offers two other MBAs, one tailored to recent college graduates and one for working professionals. All of Bentley’s MBA programs emphasize communication, collaboration and connections among disciplines.)
Instead of traditional disciplines in silos, the flagship MBA is organized around themes. These themes – Innovation, Value, Environments and Leadership – constitute a new way of educating the student in a way that is more relevant to the future world of work. The themes – and importantly, the synergy that they reflect – equip a graduate for the complex, multi-faceted issues he or she will face after graduation.
Innovation reflects the process by which individuals and organizations can add value to business and society through creativity. Value grapples with how to generate and assess value for different stakeholders. Environments considers the various contexts in which value can be added: firm, community, country and world. Leadership challenges the individual to examine and develop skills in ethical decision making, processing information and communicating decisions. The themes enable relevant expertise to be assembled in response to contemporary issues.
A key skill that students gain in this educational process is the ability to synthesize diverse content and experience. They learn traditional business perspectives. They also see the same issues, such as technological changes from the perspective of sociology. They become mindful of the societal impact of decisions. One student with several years of work experience said, “This is how things go. They are so interrelated it does not make sense to separate things out.”
This synthesis is supported by pedagogy where business and arts and science faculty collaborate in teaching the students. One professor from the arts and sciences faculty asked students to visit one place at different times of the day and write about their experience. The purpose was to “think more innovatively (and in) depth.” It was to think without the filters that a business person might have.
The pedagogy is supported by the use of physical space and the mode of convening. The entire cohort joins together in learning which takes place in a “studio” that is based on concepts of an artist’s studio. All that the students need in order to learn is included in this large comfortable space. There are tables for groups of students that support interaction with large computer monitors at each table. There are comfortable chairs, a large screen in the front of the room as well as kitchen facilities. The room has a long wall of windows as well as a skylight. Beyond its physical arrangements, the studio is a way of working, with students working in teams and instructors collaborating with students to think through complex issues.
The themes around which the MBA program is organized may change over time in response to our changing world. Each theme is reflected in a different module in the educational experience which in turn is composed of various elements. For example, some of the elements that Innovation is composed of are:
- Processing information
- Fostering creativity and generating creative ideas
- Making decisions
- Developing conditions for supporting creative environments
- Designing for innovation in business
- Integrating knowledge into business and competition
- Managing the relationship between innovation and strategy.
Three field experiences (two outside the U.S.) help students see different social settings for business and focus on the connections businesses must have with different communities in order to provide products and services to those groups. This year’s students have travelled to Atlanta to work on the role of individual skills training in economic development and to Istanbul to see a rising consumer society in a rapidly growing economy. In April, they travel to Marseille and Paris to address issues in alternative energy and communications.
How does a student imagine they will see things after they graduate? One student said, “In my work experience after the MBA I want to be aware of the social context, of the stakeholders. This will definitely help me reach a more holistic business solution rather than one that will benefit one group at the disadvantage of another.”
Barry Camson is an adjunct assistant professor of Management at Bentley University.