A biz-school disconnect What's being taught is not what's needed to survive. But there is hope.

Posted: April 04, 2010

I taught business for 15 years at a first-rate college. I loved my job and believed in the product, albeit with increasing concern. Now, however, my concerns have become acute.

Business education risks going the way of the dinosaurs. You'd never know it, though, by looking at the numbers. Of the 1.52 million bachelor's degrees conferred in 2006-07, the last year for which figures are available, 328,000 were in business, far more than any other discipline. An additional 146,000 men and women graduate with M.B.A.s from American business schools each year. For a long time, they have been viewed as vital folks at work for our economy. So why am I concerned?

I see a disconnect between the skills that colleges and universities teach and the skills needed for survival in the business world. In the real world, problem-solving is becoming increasingly complex due to a number of factors, including the overall rate of change, the speed with which people expect solutions, the broad availability of data, and the danger of information overload. Resolving these problems requires nimble, focused collaboration. Increasingly, businesses address problems by creating multidisciplinary, highly collaborative teams that make decisions gained through highly diverse lenses.

Are business schools built to facilitate such decision-making? Most are not.

Almost since the creation of the academy, the trend in higher education has been to refine studies into distinct fields, each one narrower than the next. Thus, business administration was carved out of economics, which begot the specialties of marketing, strategy, and accounting. Marketing became sales, advertising, and channel development. Advertising further devolved into the fields of electronic media and social networking.

All of these are important components of understanding commercial activity. But such niche disciplines become intellectual straitjackets, binding students to problem-solving myopia. The casualty is collaborative problem-solving. This approach risks giving smart business-school graduates the dysfunctional belief that they have all the tools needed to solve problems.

Indeed, the narrow range of teaching in the specialized cores may well have contributed to our current economic troubles.

Those who developed the "innovative" financial instruments that helped get the economy into trouble didn't seem to have the big-picture understanding needed to connect their actions to the potential dire consequences. Without this broader perspective, they rarely asked about the damage that bundled mortgage products might do if individuals were unable to meet these obligations. That was not their training.

Amid the current economic morass, though, there is hope. Business schools can thrive if they tear down discipline-based boundaries. There is an overwhelming need to move more fully to a liberal-arts philosophy, with a broader worldview of business, industry, and economics. Business students should study accounting and finance, but they also should be exposed to ethics, consumer studies, innovation, and even design. The real world needs to reenter the curriculum.

One place leading the way is Stanford University's Graduate School of Business, where a course called "Critical and Analytical Thinking" recently became part of the required first-year curriculum. Stanford students also take electives in what we call "design thinking," an outlook that is practical and ethereal, as well as market-driven and creative. Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto also has made significant progress in a collaborative approach to business education.

Until this multidisciplinary model of education becomes standard practice, we run the risk of continuing to produce managers who operate with blinders on, instead of leaders capable of taking a broad, long-term view of value creation and who have the tools and knowledge to act on their vision.

Stephen Spinelli Jr. is the president of Philadelphia University.

E-mail Stephen Spinelli Jr. at President@PhilaU.edu.

comments powered by Disqus