Friday, December 2, 2011

The Curriculum Conversation

A few weeks ago, I had the good fortune to spend some time visiting with Dr. Charles Isbell, Jr., the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs in the College of Computing at Georgia Tech. Dr. Isbell described the innovative way the College of Computing had restructured their curriculum in the face of the declining enrollments in computer science that followed the dot com bubble bust just after the turn of the new century.

After our visit, I gave some thought to how the conversation around curriculum can dictate what we consider. In a nutshell, Georgia Tech has been able to change the conversation about curriculum from “what do you want to be” to “what do you want to do?” In doing this, they have created a flexibility within their curriculum that will allow them to respond to the dynamic environment of computing.

Surprisingly, Dr. Isbell related to me that when they began to consider how they would implement this new curriculum approach, they did not need to create many new classes. (I believe he said they only created two new classes.) They found they only needed to “repackage” their existing curriculum in a new way.

Their new approach makes so much more sense than the old way of thinking! They find that they can now identify specific humanities electives that students should take, because they can relate the elective to what the student wants to do after graduation. Students can now explain to recruiters why they are taking the classes they take, because they understand how the classes prepare the student to do what they want to do. (The old answer to why a course was taken: “Because it’s required.”)

Now, colleges of computing are probably much more accustomed to change than colleges of business are, so translating the idea into a college of business would take some work. But I think in the long run, changing the conversation from, for example, being a finance major to managing the financial assets of an organization, or from being an MIS major to applying technology to solve business problems, could produce a better graduate. Many of my colleagues will argue that they do this already, but it really isn’t how the conversation usually progresses. We tend to talk about majors. We tend to talk in the context of our silos.

Even these changes pale, however, when we really start to think “outside the box.” Imagine envisioning the business curriculum in terms of the interfaces between commerce, government, business, and consumer, rather than majors. This perspective could get us out of the major silos completely. I hope to write more on this idea in subsequent posts.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

It Hasn't Been a Vacation

It has been over a month since my last blog post. The reason for the delay has been that I have accepted new responsibilities and now oversee all of the academic programs in the college. I've been busy learning new things that I need to know for this new responsibility.

However, I plan to be back! I hope to have a new post (or two) in December and resume my posting on a more regular basis in the spring.

Thank you for your interest in my thoughts and have a wonderful holiday season.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

10,000 Hours

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers: The Story of Success, makes the case for a person needing to spend 10,000 hours to become expert at the highest level in his or her field. He presents evidence related to athletics, music performance, and professional expertise (e.g., programming a computer), among other fields. (He emphasizes other significant factors that contribute to success, but I’m just focusing on the hours spent working on one’s expertise here.)

This raised the question in my mind of how the 10,000 hours compares to a college education.

Our undergraduate degrees are based on 120 credit hours of course work. A three hour class typically has about 45 hours of “contact time,” that is, the amount of time the student sits in class excluding examinations.

One hundred twenty hours of course work translates to 40 courses (40 courses X 3 credit hours = 120 credit hours for the degree). Realistically, though, only 20 of those courses will be business courses. The other 20 are courses to satisfy general education, humanities, liberal studies, science, and so forth requirements. So, to focus on the hours contributing to business expertise, we have

20 courses X 45 contact hours per course = 900 hours.

Educators like to assume that students spend at least as much time preparing for class as they spend in it, so we might optimistically double our estimate to 1800 hours. (Notably, a lot of class time is not necessarily “active learning,” so perhaps our estimate should be labeled very optimistic.)

Thus, the undergraduate business education results in 18% of the needed experience to achieve expertise at the highest level.

What happens if we add an MBA?

An MBA adds 12 to 20 more courses, depending on the program. At best, we can double our estimate again to get to a grand total of 3600 hours.

This may explain why internships and work experience are such a benefit for business students. Without these, a student has put in only a little more than one-third of the time needed to achieve true expertise in a business field.

Interestingly, if we add a Ph.D. we can get to the magic 10,000 hour number relatively easily. A Ph.D. program is typically like a full-time job for at least 4 years.

40 hours per week X 50 weeks per year X 4 years = 8000 hours. This amount added to the undergraduate and MBA experience easily exceeds 10,000 – and a strong Ph.D. student is truly an expert in his/her dissertation topic area.

In summary, it seems we should encourage our undergraduates to take internships, our MBA students to have work experience, and our doctoral students to approach their work as a full time job. Their prospects will be better – and our programs will benefit from the reputation of our graduates.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Solving the Right Problem

You have probably heard the statement “A question well put is half answered” or something similar to it. John Dewey wrote this in his book “How We Think” about one hundred years ago. In fact, Dewey’s entire sentence is: “A question well put is half answered; i.e., a difficulty clearly apprehended is likely to suggest its own solution, -- while a vague and miscellaneous perception of a problem leads to groping and fumbling.” (page 94)

I would like to focus on the latter part of the quote; a part that rarely, if ever, is considered. In this part, Dewey writes that a vague and miscellaneous perception of a problem leads to groping and fumbling.

We spend a lot of time in business schools teaching students how to solve problems. We don’t spend nearly as much time in undergraduate business programs focused on the nuances of problem formulation. Students in an MBA program are likely to spend time identifying a problem, especially in a case study course, but even there I would venture to say that we spend more time discussing the pros and cons of various potential solutions to a problem than we do examining how to define the problem we confront and what we can learn directly from the process of formulating the problem at hand.

I’m not talking about a course where a student learns to formulate a linear programming problem or a system of equations. I’m talking about having students study problem formulation. Complex problems have many stakeholders. These stakeholders often have competing and / or conflicting objectives. Resources are often limited. The business environment is dynamic and ambiguous. Often, the problems confronted by decision makers in business are not problems that can be solved in terms of a “correct” answer. More likely, the problem may be resolved with solutions that can be characterized as good, better, or best. In some cases, executing an extensive problem formulation process can dissolve a problem through the better understanding we gain as a result of carefully considering what the problem is.

I suspect we could build an entire class on the topic of problem formulation, and make it really interesting by integrating aspects of research techniques, creativity, and critical analysis, among other topics.

After all, solving the wrong problem rarely leads to any good outcomes.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Now More Then Ever

If the title of this post caught your eye as “incorrect” – congratulations!

One of our new challenges in the business school is to convince students that writing still matters. In a world where text messages and “tweeting” make the ability to communicate with new combinations of symbols an asset, we can understand how the ability to write properly could degenerate. I’m no English professor, but I do strive to write properly. By “properly” I mean I try to punctuate sentences correctly, to use the correct word, and to write clearly and concisely.

Lately, students often object when I do not give them full credit on assignments due to writing errors. Over the last few years, the most common error I see is the misuse of “then.” I don’t know why “then” is used so frequently where “than” is the correct word to use.

All professors have their favorite examples of mistakes and I would not be surprised to find a web site devoted to such errors. Such errors can provide great comic relief, but is that what you want your writing known for in a business setting?

A Newspaper Ad
I remind students that they may be known by their written work well before they are known “personally” in a large organization. The memoranda they write could be read by anyone. That usually does not get their attention until I remind them how easy it is to forward an email.

I ask them, “If someone only knew you by your written work, would they want you in front of an important client? Would they feel you will pay attention to detail and manage an important project well?”

I know some of my colleagues do not want to be in the position of grading grammar, but to the extent we can elevate our students’ written work, we will graduate a better business student. Writing skills are important – perhaps now more than ever!

Friday, September 2, 2011

Three Powerful Questions

A lot of business school education focuses on solutions. We teach our students many techniques for solving many types of problems. Outside of a case study course, we don’t get into the area of identifying what type of problem we are confronting very often. It is more often the case that the problem is “given” and we teach students how to solve the problem should they ever run into it (or one similar to it) in business.

I’d like to suggest that we consider integrating three questions more deeply into the business school curriculum.

The first question is, “What problem are you trying to solve?” I have found this to be a very powerful question to ask and to answer. Asking it usually causes a decision maker to stop cold and reflect on exactly what she confronts. Once considered, answering this question usually eliminates a lot of distractions and superfluous options. When we know what problem we are really trying to solve, we gain a focus that we did not have.

The second question is, “What will success look like?” In business education, I feel we should impress upon our students the idea of establishing a metric of some kind (and it need not be quantitative) so that we will know what success looks like. Another way of phrasing this question is, “How will you know you have solved the problem?” but I personally like the idea of framing the question in terms of success. The answer to this question provides criteria for assessing later how good the solution really is.

The third question is, “Who will hate your solution (and why)?” We naturally tend to think of the “good” aspects of a problem solution and all of the people who will be happy with our solution. We don’t spend too much time thinking about who is going to hate our solution and why they will hate it. I believe it is worthwhile to consider this perspective, because it leads us to being more critical of our work. Often, when we take a critical perspective of our work we can identify ways to improve it. We rarely seek to improve a solution that we think is good.

What problem are you trying to solve?
What will success look like?
Who will hate your solution (and why)?

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Sweet Spot Decision Making

Perhaps all of us have experienced a situation where we felt that the service we were getting was too slow. Maybe we had some other place we needed to get to, but often it’s a case where we feel that the people who are supposed to be attentive to our needs are not doing their jobs.

On the other hand, sometimes people are too attentive. I arrived at my local coffee bar one recent morning to purchase a coffee for the trip to campus. There was a line, but it was not too long and it was moving at a satisfactory pace. At least, I thought it was. Along came a barista who felt the situation would be improved by soliciting drink orders and having them ready at the cashier for each customer. In short order, several coffee drinks were placed near the cash register and confusion reigned as the cashier tried to determine which drink belonged to which customer. 

What does this have to do with business education? In thinking about these events, it occurred to me that many decision makers in business have problems when they are unable to maintain the right “pace” in their thinking. If they are slow to react, they may miss an opportunity or allow a bad situation to get worse. On the other hand, when decision makers move too quickly, they often hear that they are guilty of short-cutting the normal “process,” or worse, that they have responded with an ill-considered “knee-jerk” reaction.

A key decision making characteristic is operating in the area between “rush to judgment” and “analysis paralysis.”  I call this area the “sweet spot” of decision making. In the sweet spot, decisions are informed and timely. Whether one naturally tends to slow or quick decisions may be attributable to the person’s cognitive style, the person’s risk aversion or comfort, the influence of peers, institutional norms, or possibly many other things. To the extent we can refine the idea of “timely” decision making in our curricula so that we educate students to seek the decision making sweet spot  – decision making that is not too slow and not too fast – I think we will graduate better business professionals. 

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Forever Yours

1978: $19.95; Today: $180.00+

I entered the discipline of computer science in 1976. I was a sophomore in college and computer science looked like a better degree program for me in the long run than the one I was in at the time (mathematics). I remember giving great thought to which books I would sell back to the bookstore and which ones I would keep. There were some books that I knew I would be able to use in later courses and there were other books that I just thought I would enjoy having.

Today, we deliver many materials to our students in an electronic form. We often use a course management system as the primary delivery mechanism. Unfortunately, when a student finishes a course her access to the course materials via the course management system usually ends. Why is this?

I suspect one reason is that we have not given much thought to doing things differently. There may also have been technological reasons (e.g., limited or costly storage requirements or the overhead of maintaining multiple “old” versions of course materials) that also weighed against maintaining access to course materials forever. But are those issues still relevant today?

As we place more emphasis on our business students understanding the integrated nature of the business disciplines, it seems to me that we must move toward a system of maintaining student access to all prior course materials they have studied. We should encourage students to “go back” to those materials to refresh their knowledge on how the material fits in the current course work. We should also build into our courses content and exercises that require active integration of prior material. I think those objectives are easier to achieve when we know students have access to the material in courses they have already completed.

Friday, July 29, 2011

A Team of Catchers

Last time, I wrote: 

Some of us live for the opportunity to conduct research; some of us live for teaching; some of us live for the interaction with the community. I believe it is good that we are not all driven by the same motivations.

I mentioned in that post that research and teaching seem almost antithetical at times, but I believe there is a benefit in viewing research, teaching, and outreach as a system of scholarship activities.

Let me focus on just research and teaching. How, then, can we get our “great researchers” to better appreciate the teaching role and our “great teachers” to better appreciate the research role? (Of course, this is not a universal problem, but where it exists it needs to be addressed.)

When these questions come up, I like to point out that as important as a catcher is to a baseball team, it is very unlikely that the best baseball team would be constructed by putting the nine best catchers on the field as a team. Imagine grouping the eleven best quarterbacks together to form a football team or the five best centers together to form a basketball team!

No, the best teams have a diversity of great players filling many different roles. In fact, I think the players on great teams have high expectations of the each other and they work together to ensure that each player has the best opportunity to excel. Notably, the players on the great teams often assist each other when mistakes do occur. In other words, they are “in it together.”

I encourage our “great researchers” to remember that in the greater public’s mind, universities exist to educate students. Our researchers often focus on working with doctoral students, but that group is typically too small to justify the great researcher’s working life. The great researcher must make an effort to ensure the new knowledge being created is described in a manner that lends itself to communication to persons outside of the research community. The great researcher does not fulfill all of her obligation to scholarship when she fails to effectively communicate her discoveries.

I encourage our “great teachers” to remember that in today’s business world, the organizations that recruit our students expect those students to bring new ideas into the organization. It is not enough to teach the same material that covered the topic last year in the same way. The great teacher must also make an effort to ensure the new knowledge being created is getting into the classroom. The great teacher does not fulfill his entire obligation to scholarship when he is not current in the research in his field and thus cannot effectively understand the latest discoveries in the discipline.

We need great researchers and great teachers – and they need to work as a team to produce great graduates.

A team of catchers simply won’t do.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Research, Teaching, Outreach Circle

The work of business faculty members generally gets categorized into one of five categories: research, teaching, outreach, service, or administration.  Admittedly, the categories are not always mutually exclusive. Administration and service often overlap as do service and outreach. But, allow me in this post to speak as though the categories are distinct and to focus on only the research, teaching, and outreach categories.

Research and teaching are often discussed as though they are somehow antithetical. We may hear our colleagues described as “a great researcher” or “a great teacher,” but we rarely hear one described as great in both areas. (Would this be “a great scholar”?) At the large, land grant institutions, the outreach component is often embedded in a distinct unit: the “extension service.”

Let’s look at each piece:

We conduct research to create new knowledge. We have been trained to do that and it is our job to do it.

We teach in order to communicate knowledge to students. We do it because students expect to be taught and parents expect their children to be taught.

When we reach out to the business community (e.g., when we serve on corporate boards, consult in our areas of expertise, provide expert testimony, conduct corporate training, and perform a number of other professional activities) we communicate knowledge to those stakeholders as well.

Some of us live for the opportunity to conduct research; some of us live for teaching; some of us live for the interaction with the community. I believe it is good that we are not all driven by the same motivations.

I believe it benefits a business school to adopt a philosophy that recognizes the inter-relationships of research, teaching, and outreach activities – or at least the potential synergy that I believe can be gained by recognizing a system of research, teaching, and outreach as fundamental to business scholarship.

Here’s how I conceive it:

We have a circular relationship which I see as progressing from research to teaching to outreach back to research.

We conduct research to create new knowledge. We teach established and new knowledge to produce graduates who add value to the organizations that hire them. That knowledge-based value is the basis for a relationship that leads to outreach activities which provide additional value to the community. Once the relationship is established, doors are opened to faculty to conduct research in organizations. This research leads to more new knowledge.

I start the discussion with research, but since the relationship is circular, start where you feel most comfortable.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Leaders Make the Future

The Institute for the Future ( published a book a couple of years ago with this title: Leaders Make the Future: Ten New Leadership Skills in an Uncertain World ( The author of the book, Bob Johansen, makes the argument that the world is becoming ever more volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. The book examines leadership skills that are believed to be necessary for effective leaders in this environment.

I can’t do justice to the skills described in the book in a blog post, but the following very brief description of each skill by Alain Burrese can help:
  1. Maker Instinct focuses on how leaders need to draw out their maker instinct and apply it to their leadership. Johansen states that future leaders will need both a can-do and a can-make spirit.
  2. Clarity is a must in confusing times and a leader must be able to create and communicate with clarity without being simplistic.
  3. Dilemma Flipping is being able to succeed with challenges that cannot be solved and won't go away.
  4. Immersive Learning Ability focuses on immersing yourself in new physical and virtual worlds that may be uncomfortable to increase your learning.
  5. Bio-Empathy is being able to learn from nature and use that wisdom to inform your decisions.
  6. Constructive Depolarizing focuses on how a leader can constructively depolarize conflict to both calm and improve the situation.
  7. Quiet Transparency is a skill by which a leader is open but not self-promoting.
  8. Rapid Prototyping deals with working through many scenarios during the process of development.
  9. Smart Mob Organizing is a leadership skill of organizing people using a range of media.
  10. Commons Creating is creating areas within which both cooperation and competition may occur.

I highly recommend this book for business students.

Burrese, Alain.  Article Source:

Johansen, Bob (2009). “Leaders Make the Future: Ten New Leadership Skills in an Uncertain World.” Berrett-Koehler Publishers. 

Monday, July 11, 2011

A New Business Minor

I’ll begin with a sweeping statement: All students eventually go to work somewhere. Thus, it makes sense for all students to get some business education, if possible.

Some students will agree with this statement and will pursue a minor in business administration. The typical minor in business administration looks a lot like the typical business core curriculum. I’ve written several blog entries on different ways to re-conceptualize the business core. In this post, I’d like to (re)consider the business administration minor.

The relevant question is, I suppose, “What does a non-business major need to know about business?” The traditional answer has been “a little accounting, a little marketing, a little economics” and so forth. Odds are the typical business minor student comes out of this experience with just enough knowledge to be dangerous to her and few practical skills that may actually help her when she is employed by someone or tries to begin a business.

Here’s my minor in business administration:

Financial accounting. Accounting is the language of business. Students who can “read” a set of financial statements and understand the basic concepts (receivables, payables, revenues, expenses, profit, and so on) can understand why managers make some of the decisions they make. I believe as employees they will make better decisions, too, as they will have some idea of what the “bottom line” is and why management focuses on it. Of course, there are many other important factors related to “the bottom line,” but understanding the financial side is a good place to start.

Business law. The law of business is vast and can be very complicated. Non-business majors need to understand that employers, employees, and consumers all have rights and responsibilities. They all have limitations on their actions, too. An employee’s actions often have consequences and sometimes those consequences are very costly. A general knowledge of the laws of commerce would benefit everyone.

Business process modeling. This would be a course that teaches fundamental methods for modeling business processes. It could be a modified course in systems analysis. We know that when people build models of situations, their decision making improves.

Customer relationship management (CRM). This would be a course that surveys several topics. I would include the data management aspects of CRM, some basic consumer behavior, and perhaps some topics focused on what distinguishes pleasurable events from non-pleasurable ones, among others.

Business plan development. Learning the basics of business plan development exposes a student to the many facets of successful businesses (and business launches). Many students underestimate, due to inexperience, the many factors that contribute to successful business concerns.

These are my thoughts. You may think of some other courses that would be better.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Assessment of Learning, Capstone Courses, and Simulations

If you are familiar with AACSB Assessment of Learning, you know that there is movement toward programmatic assessment. In other words, there is movement toward assessing the business knowledge of business students, rather than the accounting knowledge of accounting majors, the marketing knowledge of marketing majors, and so forth.

I expect to see a growing number of business schools leverage their “capstone” course in business strategy to meet this assessment goal. I see several potential problems with this approach.

First, this approach implicitly confounds the results of the assessment by mixing an educational learning experience with the assessment. While it is true that students may learn something when they take a test (I had a statistics professor wanted this to happen), the primary goal of an assessment is to assess, not to educate. When using he capstone course for assessment, what is really being assessed, the business curriculum or the performance in this class?

Second, some programs will require students to participate in a complex business simulation “game” in the capstone course. This confuses the issue further if the students have no prior experience with the simulation. I ask again, what is being assessed? Is it the student’s business knowledge or the student’s ability to learn the simulation?

Third, in large business schools, the students will probably be formed into teams. Now we have the added issue of whether we are assessing individual knowledge or an ability to work well in groups.

I think integrating a business simulation into a business curriculum is a great idea. But we have learned in management information systems curricula that it is difficult to integrate complex software programs into a course. For example, when students learn database design, the best approaches I have seen have placed learning the use of the database software in a separate course, or at least a separate lab experience. In the best circumstances, the theory and concepts of database design are in separated from where students learn the software.

If performance on a simulation is the basis for assessment of business learning, then I think the ideal situation is for the business students to participate in a business simulation in a manner external to the curriculum, i.e., as an extra-curricular activity. Perhaps it could be done on one Saturday as a graduation requirement. Maybe it is a one-hour course requirement that is done in the final semester. Unfortunately, most business schools will probably find the logistics of implementing this ideal to be difficult.

If the capstone business strategy course is going to contain a simulation that will be used for assessment of learning, I feel the students should be introduced to the simulation in a required course that occurs before the capstone course. (Maybe this is a one-hour course.) At least then, the students have more opportunity to focus on the objective of the strategy course rather than on the problem of learning the simulation’s representation of the objective in the strategy course.

In this case, I’m still not sure the assessment is on the curriculum, however. The assessment remains too confounded by the new content knowledge in strategy for my liking.

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.

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.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Business Higher Ed Enigma

According to, an enigma is a puzzling or inexplicable occurrence or situation.” I think there are aspects of the typical higher education business curriculum that are enigmatic.

For example, one would expect that a college business student would graduate with a good understanding of business, or to use a perhaps more general term, commerce. But is that what really happens?

Business students get a core curriculum that (typically) contains exposure to the functional areas of business. In other words, they are required to take an accounting course, a finance course, a marketing course, a management course, etc. Along with this core business education, students will take six to ten courses in a major area. For example, an accounting major will take six to ten courses in accounting. Many business schools include a required “capstone” course in business strategy. The goal of the capstone course is to “bring it all together” so that the student understands the context of the business enterprise.

The enigma occurs in this: the business world has increasingly emphasized the integrated nature of business over the last two or three decades, but business schools still graduate functional area specialists. Business leaders emphasize that the days when accounting, marketing, engineering, and so forth occurred in silos are long gone, yet business schools still produce silo specialists.

I think there are several reasons for this situation. One is that we have been too slow to adapt curricula to a changing business environment. Another is that many businesses still come to campus to recruit specific majors. Neither the students nor the corporate recruiters are really complaining about this situation, so focusing on how to “fix” these issues is likely to be unproductive.

Instead, I would prefer to imagine a different business school context; one that may evolve into a more attractive business education reality. With that in mind, here are two ideas I hope to explore in the next blog entries:

What would a business school core curriculum look like if it were organized differently?

Is one capstone course really adequate in today’s business education?

Thursday, June 23, 2011

A Digital Business Core Curriculum

Every college business curriculum that I know about has a "core curriculum." The core curriculum is a set of courses that every business student takes, regardless of their major. A core curriculum in business typically contains an accounting course, a finance course, a marketing course, a business law course, and so forth.

What I have been thinking about is a set of technology courses that every business student should take. At a minimum, I think every business major would benefit from knowing how to access and manipulate data. But to be truly attractive to potential employers, I think a business graduate should know much more.

Here are my Digital Business Core Courses:

Digital Information Processing I (aka DIP I) – This course would focus on the best current technology for manipulating primarily quantitative information. Currently, it would likely be built around spreadsheet technology.

Digital Information Processing II (aka DIP II) – This course would focus on identifying and using digital information resources. Whereas DIP I would provide data to students to be manipulated, DIP II would focus on identifying data sources and teaching students how to mine the data in those data sources. (In today’s world, DIP I would be based on spreadsheet technology; DIP II would be more likely to involve database technologies.)

Business Process Analysis – This course would look at business processes from a systems perspective. Students would be taught to model common business processes by identifying data sources, information flows, decision points, and data outputs.

Business Social Media – This course would incorporate communications (and other) theories to identify appropriate business uses of social media and effective approaches to realizing common business goals. Students would be expected to use the best current technology to construct a social media presence in a business context.

Information Policy – A study of existing laws governing data use; public versus private data; concepts of data property, access, privacy, and accuracy; the value of data; data quality; and corporate responsibility with respect to data.

Digital Resource Management – This course would examine the strategic purchase, use, and retirement of digital processing assets. It would specifically recognize the dynamic nature of the digital technology environment which contains increasingly more powerful, yet less expensive, advancements and innovations that may be destructive to existing business strategy. Students will be taught to construct a feasible plan for digital resource management given a specific business context.

The Digital Business Future – This course would examine future business environments. Topics could include the impact of price updates in real time, advertising reacting to the presence of customers, inanimate objects communicating with business information systems (or other objects), crowd-sourcing, and information markets. 

This core would not replace the typical existing business core. Rather, it would be implemented in a concurrent fashion with it. To be effective, it must begin in the first semesters so that subsequent discipline-specific courses (i.e., in accounting, finance, etc.) could take advantage of the information processing skills developed in these courses. I suggest one of the following approaches:

A “Traditional” Approach

First semester: Digital Information Processing I and Business Process Analysis
Second semester: Digital Information Processing II and Information Policy
Third semester: Digital Resource Management and Business Social Media
Fourth semester: Digital Business Future

This approach has the basic skills courses in the first semester and builds in a traditional way to a “capstone” like course that is future-oriented.

A “Non-Traditional” Approach

First semester: Digital Information Processing I and Business Process Analysis
Second semester: Digital Information Processing II and Digital Business Future
Third semester: Information Policy and Business Social Media
Fourth semester: Digital Resource Management

This approach moves “thinking about the future” to an earlier point in the curriculum so that students may be encouraged to think more innovatively in later classes. It still ends with a “capstone / strategy-like” course.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

In the beginning...

...there was a man and his thoughts. About business education. Business higher education, to be more exact. Or, to be really exact, the kind of education I have been a part of as a professor in colleges of business for over 25 years.

I've been fortunate to hold appointments at two fine universities: Texas A&M University for 14 years and Florida State University for the past 11 years. While there are similarities in these two institutions (they are both large and public, they both provide education at the undergraduate and graduate levels, and they both emphasize research activity aimed at making an impact on a global scale), they exist in two very different environments (Texas A&M evolved from a military institution, Florida State was first a seminary and later a women's college).

I feel that business higher education, like higher education in general, is at a critical point. I do not expect the best business schools in 10 years will look like, or act like, the best business schools today. That seems like an incredibly short period in which to see change in academic institutions, but for now I'm going to stick with that estimate.

I hope to develop in this space some ideas about business higher education. I think I will benefit from thinking about these ideas enough to put them in the public space. I hope others will benefit either from subsequent discussions that the ideas spawn or simply from taking the ideas and developing them further.