Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A Skills-Based Business Core Curriculum

In an earlier post, I commented on a digital business core curriculum, which focuses on the technology-related knowledge I feel every business student should have. I followed that with a post about how the business curriculum produces “silo specialists,” functional area majors who do not have a great grasp of the overall business context, in spite of a trend in business to move away from functional area silos toward a more integrated view of organizational decision making.

I believe we (academics) share the blame with corporate recruiters for this situation. We are often too busy to change (radically) our approach to business education and corporate recruiters tend to recruit functional area specialists. (An obvious exception to this, of course, is the consulting company that recruits the “best and brightest” that it can attract.)

In this post, I’d like to imagine how a different approach to the business core curriculum might help us break the current mold for business education. Let’s imagine a business core curriculum that is based on skills rather than exposure to the basics of accounting, finance, marketing, and so forth. What skills might we include in our core? These come to my mind:

Problem formulation. I think it was Dewey who said, “A problem well stated is half solved” or something similar. (Perhaps it was someone else…) In a world of increasing complexity and ambiguity, the benefits of understanding what problem you are trying to solve are immeasurable. Gaining consensus on the problem definition can go a long way toward exposing conflicting assumptions held by stakeholders. Besides, solving the wrong problem is almost guaranteed to be a waste of resources.

Dealing with complexity. This is a natural topic to consider with problem formulation. Many problems are complex problems, and complex problems are messy problems. Actually, these are not colloquial concepts. There is a significant literature devoted to the identification of these types of problems, which may be called “complex,” “messy,” or “wicked” in the problem formulation literature. In studying this problem type, one learns that these problems are rarely “solved.” Instead, they may be “resolved.” One also learns that thinking in terms of “right” or “wrong” solutions is not very productive. Rather, one must think in terms of “good” and “better” solutions.

Wellbeing enhancement. The concept of “wellbeing” is gaining traction as we recognize that happy, healthy workplaces are more productive and profitable. Happy, healthy communities are attractive places to live and work. Wellbeing has many facets, but one that is a driver for many of the others is “financial wellbeing.” I think one could easily fill a semester investigating wellbeing concepts at the individual, team, organization, and community levels – along with the implications for business at each level.

Data assessment. Data drives so much of our business decision making, yet how much time do we spend teaching students to examine the quality of the data being used for decision making? Data has so many important characteristics that should be considered: age, source, volatility, accuracy, and precision are a few that come immediately to mind. This would be a good place to consider qualitative data, since we tend to focus on quantitative data in our typical classes on decision making (e.g., statistics). We might also integrate discussions of data ownership in this skill development, in the sense that we may need to make a critical assessment about who should be able to access, change, or use data in the first place.

Creativity development. This topic could set the foundation for a number of business topics to follow. Innovation, entrepreneurship, and negotiation are topics that spring immediately to mind. I suspect that courses on creativity already exist at many campuses.

Maybe “skills” isn’t the right word. Maybe we should just say we want students to be cognizant of problem formulation issues, complexity, data assessment, and so forth. I’m sure others could suggest additional concepts that would be as good as, or better, than these. These are the ones that came to my mind and they are not exhaustive or exclusive in any way.

Imagine how your students might be perceived by either industry or graduate schools if they were known for these skills or characteristics, regardless of their major.

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