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.