The New “Liberal Arts MBA” Curriculum

By - Jan 13, 12:54 PM Comments [0]

Learning how to think creatively and critically, according to Roger Martin, dean of University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, should be just as important to MBA students as learning finance or accounting. These skills are crucial to approaching problems head-on and to creating innovative solutions.

These learning concepts have long been implemented in liberal arts education, but it is only in the face of economic crisis that business schools are beginning to take more seriously these ideals.

Martin’s goal is to create a sort of “liberal arts MBA.”

According to the NY Times in “Multicultural Critical Theory. At B-School?,” the current financial situation reinforced the importance of this goal, though the adoption of these ideals in MBA programs has been in the making already for a number of years.

[E]ven before the financial upheaval last year, business executives operating in a fast-changing, global market were beginning to realize the value of managers who could think more nimbly across multiple frameworks, cultures and disciplines. The financial crisis underscored those concerns — at business schools and in the business world itself.

Top b-schools are re-designing their programs to include a liberal arts approach to business. This more traditional, interdisciplinary learning plan includes a stronger emphasis on the historical, global, and moral implications of business, leadership, and social responsibility.

The Graduate School of Business at Stanford, for example, now offer a mandatory class called “The Global Context of Management and Strategic Leadership.”

Stanford’s dean, Garth Saloner, explains, “Stanford wants its business students to develop ‘a lens that brings some kind of principled set of scales to the problem.’”

Needless to say, Mr. Martin’s Rotman School has taken great strides towards liberalizing its business education, with “integrative thinking” and “design thinking” at the near center of its curriculum.

“Design thinking” is a popular “innovation-oriented approach” that many b-schools are embracing. President of the design firm, IDEO, describes the creation of Stanford’s new design-based Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (d.school):

What’s different about design thinking is, it’s focused on taking that understanding you have about the world and using that as a set of insights from which to be creative.

A graduate of the d.school further explains the difference between what she learned at b-school versus what she learned at d.school:

At business school, there was a lot of focus on, “You’ve got a great idea; here’s how you build a business out of it.” The d.school said, “Here’s how you get to that great idea.”

UVA’s Darden and the Yale School of Management have also implemented similar curriculum changes.

Not all top MBA programs are acting so quickly to make this significant switch. Dean Edward A. Snyder, from Chicago Booth, says that Chicago has decided to keep its curriculum traditionally disciplined-based.

More and more b-schools are expected to make similar changes in the coming years.

The impact that these new programs have had and will have on management are unclear as of now, but Dean Martin is optimistic: “[I]f you give [students] ways of thinking that help them with these complicated dilemmas, they’ll make choices that are in some sense more worthy and have higher moral quality.”

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