New Model for Business Education

Editors of new volume of essays discuss their ideas about the importance to undergraduate programs of including arts and sciences disciplines in meaningful ways.

April 19, 2013

Undergraduate business education is much-discussed, much-criticized and -- at many campuses -- hugely popular in enrollments. A new collection of essays -- Shaping the Future of Business Education: Relevance, Rigor and Life Preparation (Palgrave Macmillan) -- finds much to criticize about traditional programs. The way forward, the essays argue, is with more rigor and more arts and sciences than have traditionally been present in undergraduate business education. The editors of the volume are Gordon M. Hardy, senior associate director of content, communication and creative services at Bentley University, and Daniel L. Everett, dean of arts and sciences at Bentley. They responded to e-mail questions about the themes of the volume.

Q: What are the main critiques in the book's essays of traditional undergraduate business education?

Dan Everett: As Patricia Peknik notes in the first chapter, traditional business education has its roots in the apprentice model of work in early America: a young person acquired mastery of a particular skill under an expert’s instruction. As business schools arose, this "siloed" model persisted: accountants learned accounting, marketers marketing, and so on.

Today, that model is no longer relevant to the way organizations actually work. Successful organizations today create value through complex, often far-flung interplay of individual skills and talents. As complexity increases, intense teamwork, sophisticated information gathering and interpretation, performing across barriers, communication, an understanding of culture and a heightened awareness of the "ecosystem" in which the organization operates are all vital.

The need to understand the arts and sciences is as simple and critical as the need to understand deeply the products and services you are making and distributing. Business education, alone and by itself, is not enough. It can make someone efficient at the practical matters of effecting transactions, but it doesn’t by itself create anything. Business is a mechanism and a means – by all means crucial, but insufficient. What is needed is both business knowledge and the creativity, connection, and ability to invent that the arts and sciences convey.

There’s also the simple fact that students want value for their considerable investment in education. When someone graduates with nothing more than a particular business proficiency, they miss out on the other skills that make them not just a capable business colleague, but also a more informed and better-thinking citizen, able to live a personally satisfying and societally useful life. In this fused model, students have the opportunity to develop business expertise while also developing a wide range of skills that will serve in all aspects of life – work, community and relationships.

Q:  Many of the essays concern the role of arts and sciences in business education. How do you see the integration of the two?

Gordon Hardy: It takes effort, especially when a university is organized along traditional department lines. We have both a high-level practice and practical, on-the-ground implementation.

At the high level, we have a dean’s council where Dan sits with his counterpart in the business area. Curricular changes, policies and resources are deployed with integration in mind. We offer grants to pairs of professors from each "side" to develop fully integrated classes.

At the ground level, professors integrate disciplines. For example, I teach a course in online journalism – certainly a dynamic and rapidly changing business. In addition to showing students how to write and report local, human-scale stories, I also have them study and write about the collapsing business model of modern journalism. Business students really respond to this, applying their business-core knowledge to a huge, relevant business problem, while covering it through journalistic practices and writing.

Another example: This year, several management classes used music to explore softer skills such as empathy and emotional responses. Another class delved into the parallels between the skills of an actor (adopting different characters and examining perspectives, fears, motivations and needs) and those of a manager.

Q: If arts and sciences is added, is anything taken away in terms of business issues?

Gordon Hardy: No. In fact, without the arts and sciences, modern business education is stunted and incomplete.

Here’s an example: Today’s accountant-managers don’t spend all their time alone in front of a computer, crunching numbers. As often as not, they are managing a worldwide flow of information and data, and then interpreting that data for other managers and C-suite officers. The accountant may direct squads of number crunchers in India, connecting their data to regulations and cultural norms here in the United States. They must have a strong ability to understand and communicate across cultures – not just national and ethnic cultures, but culture within corporations. Effective communication, as well as a deep understanding of cultural norms worldwide, is a vital part of that accountant’s success.

Another example: Those same accountants are also risk managers for the company. They are at the forefront of maintaining ethical standards, regulatory compliance, and "rules of engagement" between a company and its stakeholders. As such, they may be called upon to understand ambiguous situations, to "find the truth in the data" based upon a subtler understanding of an organization’s ecosystem than we once expected from the "green-eyeshade" accountant.

We like to say that in the modern world, both business and arts and sciences are everywhere you look. We want our business-minded students to see the world in that way.

Q: Do prospective students understand the importance of studying topics beyond those strictly related to business?

Dan Everett: Most do. That’s why they come to Bentley. We make our model very clear. And whatever their interests, we get them to understand why we are doing this. We don’t tell them, "Come here, get a business education and learn to paint." Instead, we tell them, "Come here, get a business education, and also become proficient in communications and other cultures. Cultivate your creativity, suppleness, and curiosity about the world. Learn how to read deeply, understand how scientific research produces breakthrough products, how cultural differences and different perspectives strengthen organizations – because you’re going to need all of those skills to succeed in your chosen profession."

One of our most effective advocates is a C-level executive at a leading accounting firm. He says: "To get hired here, you need to know accounting. To get promoted here, you need the arts and sciences."

Q: Do these ideas apply to the M.B.A. or other graduate degrees?

Dan Everett: Yes. Over the past few years we have designed and launched a one-year, radically different M.B.A. It’s a response to the critique leveled at M.B.A. education – that it is focused on the wrong things, that it is based on disciplines and not integrated thinking, and that it produces myopia rather than insight or foresight. We focus on four themes – innovation, value, environments, and leadership – and teach them in a close, intense studio setting. Arts and sciences faculty figure deeply in the curriculum, teaching psychology, design, technology, social contexts, creativity and many other topics. The arts and sciences are not "bolted on" as an afterthought. They are embedded throughout the experience.


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