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Rethinking Business School

This post doesn’t have much to do with marketing or stories, it’s just something I’ve been thinking about for the past couple of days…

I have been reading Seth Godin’s new book, Linchpin, in which he is very critical of the failure of our education system to teach creativity. He argues that we churn out legions of “factory workers” who appear happy with meaningless jobs in exchange for the security of a paycheck. We are taught to follow directions, color within the lines, and never question authority. And we learn those lessons very well. (The way Seth describes it is far more nuanced.)

At the same time, I have been reflecting on my own experience with business school, and wondering how it could have been better. Don’t get me wrong—I had an amazing experience and learned many things I would not have learned otherwise. I don’t regret my decision to pursue my MBA at all. But I essentially got the same education as the other 62 people in the program with me. I have to wonder: is there a better way? Should I have learned something different from the others?

I’m certainly not the first person to ask these questions. Josh Kaufman began exploring the idea of a personal MBA about five years ago. He put together a very good reading list from which any motivated student can learn almost everything a traditional MBA student learns in the course of study—probably more. There’s a lot to like about Kaufman’s idea. A student can tailor an experience around his own needs and weaknesses—all for a few hundred dollars and an Amazon account.

But the lack of interaction with other students and professors is a huge drawback. In my own experience, discussions with my fellow students, including a PhD. of Genetics, the freelance technical director of a bay area opera, the safety director at Rio Tinto, and an operations VP at Kimberly Clark, taught me far more than the books or case studies alone.

But as good as it is, the classroom experience itself, isn’t very real-world. Discussing the people management policies at Southwest Airlines is far different than managing the people. Making decisions in a marketing simulation isn’t at all like the real-world process of product development and marketing products to real consumers. So I have to think there is a better way to teach these skills.

I’d love to see my business school offer a new degree, a master’s of business creation (MBC) or master’s of business innovation (MBI). Students would be formed into small groups of three or four. Tuition would become seed capital and professors would act as paid advisors to help students brainstorm ideas, then launch a business or not-for-profit enterprise.

This would require a lot of people to step out of their comfort zones. Written tests would be pretty meaningless—instead students would be graded on successfully applying concepts to real world situations. The accounting final might be the actual tax documents for the business. Professors wouldn’t be able to show up and present the same lecture they’ve given for the past eight years. In fact, they wouldn’t know what they should teach until they arrived at the group’s daily meeting. One week, students might need accounting help. The next week, help with negotiations or ethics. The next week, advice on marketing, or design, or statistics. The professors basically become a board of directors for the students to rely on.

The university could introduce business students to professors and students from other disciplines (say medicine, engineering, or chemistry) who are working on new technologies with market potential in order to start their businesses. A portion of the profits from the successful start-ups could help reduce the overall cost of the student’s education—or they could be fed back into other meaningful programs at the school.

There may still be a place for textbooks and semi-regular lectures. But they would be taking place against a background of experience where the theories can be tried and tested.

Graduates from this program might not be a good fit for GE, IBM, or Pfizer. But I’m guessing more of them would come away from their educational experience as artists and entrepreneurs, rather than the drones Seth Godin describes. Something to think about anyway…

Related Thoughts:

• Others have thought out this idea too, probably better than I: here and here.

• There appear to be several business programs in Europe that are very similar to the one described above. It may be time to import some of these ideas to our U.S. schools. Examples here, here, and here.

• I posted a link to this talk by Sir Ken Robinson about how schools kill creativity at the old blog. It’s been around for awhile and linked to quite a bit, but if you haven’t seen it before, it’s well worth the 20 minutes it takes to watch:

 

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