Lindsey Olier Barnes had just arrived in Bangalore, India for a monthlong internship at IT giant Infosys when she encountered one of the real-world problems she'd heard so much about back at Stanford University's Graduate School of Business. The Infosys group to which she was assigned had been tasked with getting managers to focus on new products as well as the company's traditional niche, providing cost-cutting solutions to clients. The move was out of the comfort zone for many managers, and a constant complaint of her colleagues in the group was, "They won't listen."
So Barnes took a page from her Leadership Labs course. She made a point of hearing out the managers before launching into her own spiel, so she could "address the root causes of their concerns." Suddenly they seemed more receptive and started asking questions about the new strategy. By letting them voice their worries about what the change could mean for them and their employees, Barnes says, she earned their trust. She had learned that "people don't care about how much you know until they know how much you care."
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Barnes's communication coup is exactly the kind of outcome business educators have in mind as they rethink M.B.A. programs to de-emphasize traditional discipline-based courses like marketing and finance in favor of a focus on leadership skills, innovation, social responsibility, and a global perspective. A handful of elite institutions, including the Yale School of Management, Stanford, and, most recently, the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, have led the charge with radical curriculum overhauls.
But John Fernandes, president and CEO of AACSB International–The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, which accredits b-schools, estimates that upwards of 75 percent of schools have made some changes to their curricula. "In many instances, you are seeing them being destroyed and rebuilt," he says. The capacity of the leaders "that society expects today is so demanding and so broad that everyone is rushing to meet those needs."
Yale rolled out its new curriculum in 2006, after a yearlong review in which administrators found a widening disconnect between M.B.A. programs and the business world. The school eliminated traditional coursework in favor of interdisciplinary classes focused on the "organizational perspectives" of different parties. So, for example, instead of taking a finance class, students take courses on the investor and the customer and learn about the fundamentals of finance in each class from those different perspectives. Economics is similarly taught from various viewpoints, including those of competitors, the state and society, and operations.
The old case study method of instruction has been revisited, too. Rather than consider pre-digested summaries of company situations, students tackle "raw cases" packed with original data. Instead of being presented with an income statement, for example, they must mine the considerably bulkier annual filing to the Securities and Exchange Commission for data. The raw cases "push us to understand," says second-year Yale student Jason Hill. "They purposely put in more material than you could ever look at, but you have to learn where to look."
Another buzz phrase in b-school circles these days is "leadership development." It's a key component of the M.B.A. programs deemed most successful by David Garvin, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School and coauthor of Rethinking the MBA: Business Education at a Crossroads. The ability to guide others and give staff members critical feedback must be developed, Garvin argues, through exercises and experiences that develop self-awareness and an appreciation of how coworkers affect one another. Stanford similarly stresses what Dean Garth Saloner calls three leadership capabilities: critical analytical thinking; innovative thinking; and personal leadership.
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A challenge for M.B.A. programs today is that many of the industries in which their grads will be leaders don't yet exist. "Today they work in hedge funds and biotechnology," says Wharton Dean Thomas Robertson. "None of that existed 20 years ago." Wharton has appointed a vice dean to focus specifically on ensuring that innovation is everywhere in the new curriculum, which was approved last December. One new course content area, for example, is Management of Operations, Innovation, Information, and Decisions under Uncertainty.
The recent financial upheaval has also led M.B.A. programs to focus more on social responsibility. Business schools have been blamed for fostering the culture of greed—or at least short-sightedness—that led to the crisis. As a result, says AACSB's Fernandes, schools are exploring how to change their curricula to produce responsible leaders who don't focus solely "on profit maximization."
Stanford, for one, has introduced an ethics class with guest lectures by industry veterans. Students are presented with real-life issues such as "spinning," a controversial practice in which investment banks offer stock options to executives with whom they do business in advance of an initial public offering. "I do believe that business schools have an obligation to society to be a force for good," says Wharton's Robertson.
Perhaps no curriculum change has been more widely embraced by educators than the global component. Stanford now requires students to do an internship, a service-learning project, or a study trip in a country where they haven't lived or worked before the start of their second year. At the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business, students spend the last seven weeks of their first year immersed in small-group field projects at real companies. One team is traveling to South Africa to help an alternative energy company develop a leasing model for a fuel cell power plant.
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Three years ago, Emory University's Goizueta Business School introduced a 10-day break during spring semester so students could earn credit by traveling abroad with a faculty member to explore a topic relevant to the host country in association with local and multinational firms. Students visit Costa Rica, for example, to help develop the local coffee farm industry.
"It's one thing to teach the political economy of China and India," says Harvard's Garvin. "It's another thing to get on the ground in field projects in those countries and actually try and get something done.
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