Thursday, June 30, 2011

An Experience-Based Business Core Curriculum

Last time, I wrote on a skills-based business core curriculum. Those thoughts were directed at imagining a different approach to the college business core curriculum. Instead of the typical core curriculum that requires students to take an accounting course, a finance course, a marketing course, and so forth, the skills-based core curriculum describes a set of skills that every college business student could master.

One unwritten aspect of that effort has since occurred to me: the skills-based approach could be integrated into a wide range of courses. There would not necessarily need to be a set of core courses for educating students in these skill areas, although one might choose to do that. I think some very good arguments could be made for integrating the skills throughout the curriculum, rather than concentrating them in a set of core courses.

However, in this post I’d like to change directions and imagine what I will call an “experience-based business core curriculum.” Here are some of the experiences that I think would benefit every business student:

Managing an investment fund. A number of business programs already have an investments course where students manage a fund. I don’t think it is necessary to have an actual fund (i.e., I don’t think it is necessary to have real money on the line), although having actual money at risk probably brings an exciting element to the experience that may not be easily duplicated. As long as some relevant benefit (for increasing wealth) and consequence (for losing wealth) is established, the experience can be beneficial. The most important issue, in my mind, is the opportunity to examine both the randomness of portfolio fluctuations and the identifiable influences on portfolio values. In this way, students can begin to build the context of commerce in a dynamic business environment.

Producing value from seed money. I’m stealing this idea from the Florida State University entrepreneurship program, because it is a great one. The FSU entrepreneurship students are given a $25 gift card and one week to produce as much value as they can. They buy and sell goods (e.g., buy bottled water to sell for a profit at football tailgate parties) or they buy raw materials and construct goods to sell. They reinvest their profits to increase the amount of value created further. In the process, most students learn in one week some very valuable lessons about production, inventory, marketing, and cash flow that I suspect they retain for the rest of their life. (Students should be required to account for every penny, too!)

Present an analysis and business plan to a board of executives. I’ve implemented this one on a small scale, and the benefits to the students are huge. Ideally, students are given an actual business situation to analyze. Their task is to present a set of recommendations to a board of executives. If you have consulting industry contacts, you may be able to get them to disguise / adapt a recent engagement for your use. Many organizations have training materials based on actual situations that may be used. For the students, the value of speaking properly and being organized suddenly becomes crystal clear. (An additional idea: I made this a competition and scheduled a dinner at a pizza or wings place for students and executives afterwards for the announcement of the competition winners. This approach gave students more time to visit with executives informally.)

Develop a market plan for a local non-profit. There are many aspects of business that can be integrated into this experience. The students must consider not only marketing, but also the financial capability of the non-profit, the resources available (human and financial), consumer behavior, legal issues, and other business areas. This experience also emphasizes “giving back” to the community.

Designing, developing, and maintaining a social presence. Today’s digital native students often under-estimate the difficulty in designing, developing, and maintaining a social media presence. This experience requires some discussion of mission, strategy, core values, production process, technology, and planning, among other business skills. Not every video “goes viral” and some web presences are just plain awful. On the other hand, some of the best college web sites I’ve seen have student-developed content on them.

As before, these are not exclusive or exhaustive of the experiences. You may think of others. When these experiences occur is another issue; I would press for having them occur as early as possible in the curriculum.

I think experiences like these can provide a context for understanding business. It seems to me that many business students who struggle do so because they can’t understand the context of business educational material. For example, the mathematics of depreciation is not difficult – it’s the fact that the concept of depreciation is new. (You allocate a cost to a period of use, but you don’t actually pay money... Doesn’t that sound a little funny at first?)

Perhaps changing our focus to a set of experiences we want every business student to have would produce a better business graduate, regardless of the major pursued.

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