What if... We revised the business school curriculum?
I attended Texas Christian University as an undergraduate accounting major in the early to mid 1970s. I then got an MBA and PhD in business-related fields, and began my teaching career in 2000. Now, nearly 50 years later, I am thinking about what we do in our business schools across the USA. Clearly, nothing much has changed in the last half century that would impact business education—sorry, just being a bit sarcastic there! On the contrary, the past 50 years have seen unprecedented change in nearly every aspect of our lives.
Surely, in the face of those enormous changes, what and how we teach has also changed significantly. Right?!?! Well, actually—no. Clearly, some things have changed. I don’t remember having an option to major in supply chain management, even though I’m pretty sure supply chains existed back then. We also have introduced majors in Management Information Systems (MIS) and Data Analytics. Given that we were still analog creatures during my undergrad years, these additions are not surprising. And I am sure that we now include new information in the pre-existing majors such as marketing, management, finance, and accounting.
But looking at the core curriculum of business schools then and now reveals just how little things have changed. My TCU transcript (yes, I actually have a copy of it), shows that I took two introductory accounting courses, two economics classes, statistics, finance, management, and marketing—even a data processing course! Looking at what today’s UNI business majors are required to take, one gets an eerie sense of déjà vu. Current UNI transcripts look almost identical to mine.
When I joined the faculty at UNI in 2013, as the new David W. Wilson Chair in Business Ethics, I had an obvious interest in teaching business ethics, and thought such a course should be added to the core curriculum. However, I was pulled aside by multiple people, telling me to save my breath. The business core curriculum here was sacrosanct—it has stood the test of time, and changes to it would not be looked upon favorably. To my shame, I jetisoned my advocacy of this change and remained quiet.
One current example illustrates my point well. In spite of the ensconced resistance toward changing the business curriculum, we have just changed it! The change consists of substituting Organizational Behavior (an existing elective course) for Organizational Management in the core. Prior to this substitution, our major concern was offering both courses for credit in the Management major, because of their extensive overlap of content. Yes, we “changed” the core curriculum, but the change consists of one management class for a very similar one.
At this point, it is important for me to clarify my position on the business core curriculum. I do not advocate a wholesale change, and I do not believe that UNI is unique in its desire to stick with a proven set of courses. Every business students should know the basics of each functional area within a business organization. Just as there is good reason to have a well-rounded liberal education (even if we have to “force” students to take those classes as part of their general education requirements), we should expect every business graduate to know a little something about what all businesses must do to be successful.
But in a larger context, what business does, and what is expected of it is changing rapidly. Society has always expected business firms to be profitable, offer goods and services, provide employment, and not actively harm people or the environment. Those minimal expectations are quickly expanding, though, to include basic human rights, combating climate change, taking stands on political issues, and a plethora of other considerations. Business schools are not keeping up with these increased expectations, continuing to focus on how to be competitive, efficient, and profitable. Each of those can be a “good” thing in itself, but none are sufficient for today’s business climate. I remember of colleague of mine saying, ten or fifteen years ago at an academic conference that he had absolutely no interest in teaching business classes that were designed to instruct students on how to run businesses to be more efficient or make more money. His stance was that we already were really good at that. Rather, his goal was to help his students become more socially aware, thus helping them meet the new social expectations that were then arising (I must admit that this discussion took place in a business ethics subgroup—not a general business or management gathering).
Business, writ large, has become separated from the larger society in some important ways. Karl Polyani warned of this in his 1944 book The Great Transformation; my dissertation chair, Jon Shepard wrote extensively about the amoral theory of business; UVA professor Ed Freeman spoke of his separation thesis. My argument is that this disengagement between business and the larger society is now beginning to reverse; I guess more accurately I should say that members of society want it reversed. We are probably still at the very beginning of this process—if business abides by it.
So, how should the business core be changed? Funny you should ask… My first, and, I believe, most important suggestion is to shift our teaching methods to the problem-based learning (PBL) method. PBL is essentially learning by doing—figuring out how to solve a problem we are faced with. We have all become temporary plumbers (if faced with a dripping faucet) or firefighters (if something on the stove flares up). PBL has been shown to be a highly effective learning process, and is especially relevant for future business people. To contrast PBL with our current teaching methods, what we do now is essentially tell our students how to use a hammer (hit a nail with it as hard as you can), saw (you cut stuff by pulling and pushing the saw through it), or a screwdriver (you stick the pointy end into a slot on the screw and twist it), before they have ever seen a nail, a board, or a screw.
What I envision is presenting all business students with a common business “problem” at the beginning of a semester, let them struggle with it a while, and as they identify things they need to know, or know how to do, they then learn those specific skills. At the lower level courses, we could structure the problems so students have to learn a little bit about each of the core functions of a business. As students identify their respective majors, the problems they are given become increasingly more difficult, requiring them to learn more about a specific functional area. This approach would make the lessons learned more directly applicable (and thus more memorable), and would require students’ active involvement, rather than our current directives of “read this article and then we’ll talk about it.”
I am the first to admit changing to this model would be an administrative nightmare, and it would force most teachers completely out of their comfort zones. But my guess is that it would result in a much richer learning experience for our students, and they would be better prepared to enter the business world and be productive from the start.
My second suggestion is to ramp up the integration of business courses with the liberal arts. As I alluded to earlier, our students will be expected to lead efforts to address problems of social import in the near future. Therefore, it is imperative that our current students become increasingly aware of issues facing the world today, and those likely to arise in the near future. Too often in the past, business students have been taught to maximize profits, full stop. I believe that business students should be influenced to make a positive difference in society.
In an earlier blog post, I mentioned a question raised by David Korten, in a talk given to the International Humanistic Management Association (at approximately 56:20 in the video). He said, “[I]f we took these issues to The Limits to Growth [a book he wrote] seriously, how would humanity and business, and business education have to change?....Is the purpose of the Harvard Business School [and business schools in general] to prepare young people for success in business as it exists [emphasis his], the system of business as it exists, or is it to prepare those students to transform that system? I think that is exactly the question we face here.” Again, my answer to Korten’s question is we absolutely need to prepare our students to transform the system of business to meet future expectations. Our current emphasis on the limited scope of making money is simply too narrow to meet tomorrow’s business environment.
The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not imply endorsement by the University of Northern Iowa.