Soapbox

July 9, 2012 12:01 am

Students are blinkered by a narrow teaching focus

Many faculty do not know how to integrate the subjects that are the foundation of most curricula

The curricula in business schools requires revision. Business schools are supposed to be ahead of best practice, ahead of what the best companies are able to do. They should also be producing graduates who can make better decisions than those without a business education. A fast-changing global environment requires companies to be constantly looking for opportunities and threats; and it requires companies and leaders to be adept at generating technologies, products and services. If these goals were achieved, businesses and society would be better off.

However, one might question whether business schools are actually ahead. Many programmes still teach from the perspective of single disciplines such as marketing or finance. Teaching a single discipline is an easy task for faculty, but it puts blinders on the students. Such a narrow focus takes us further away from understanding deep problems, most of which require an integrated, multi-disciplinary focus.

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Furthermore, many approaches to strategy in business schools today, take a relatively static view of market structure and competition. Too many business schools focus on how companies defend a position, rather than how to stake out new positions in uncharted territory, or how to capture market share with innovative products. Company-wide skills are core to these dynamics and they are better understood if students follow a curriculum that combines disciplines. Business schools should be teaching how companies innovate, capture value and transform.

Leading business schools need to give students the skills needed in a world where change is constant, the need for learning continuous, imitation often too easy and competition relentless. This in turn requires understanding real world competitive challenges. This can be assisted by frameworks and theories that explain the origins of organ- isational skills and stress the importance of the entrepreneurial abilities of management. These topics must be at the core, not the periphery, of business school education.

A multi-disciplinary focus can help future managers recognise and exploit opportunities faster and better. This means teaching students how to change the market by recognising or anticipating what consumers want but are not getting and how to rethink participation by companies along the value chain.

Schools need to offer intellectually coherent curricula. Currently schools teach via single disciplines, augmented by a smorgasbord of popular topics dictated by the popular business media.

Business school students need to learn skills in the first semester and build on them throughout their MBA experience. This hopefully culminates in an experiential capstone course that allows them to put into practice what they have learned. In reality, many schools teach via single disciplines and then toss their graduates onto the street, perhaps with a prayer that the students may somehow work out how basic business functions work together. The truth is that many faculty members themselves do not know how to integrate the subjects that are the foundation of most business schools’ curricula.

Moreover, business school research is traditional, not focused on multi-disciplinary research, and any such research is usually not rewarded. Unsurprisingly teaching often reflects this narrowly focused research orientation.

Good teaching requires integration as well as drill-down analysis. Introducing an integrated, multi- discipline focus into the syllabi for all business school courses would tie everything to the central puzzle of how to build competitive advantage at the company-wide level. It could help to revitalise business school curricula and teach future business leaders the skills to thrive in a world where disruptive challenges and emerging opportunities are the norm. In this way, business schools might get ahead of best practice and thus make a bigger and more positive impact on business and on the world.

David Teece is professor of global business at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.

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