October 24, 2011 12:30 am

Chicago’s Booth School of Business

If you hear the initials “XP” at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, it would be a mistake to assume that it refers to the computer operating programmes. Here, “XP” is more often used as shorthand for “executive programmes” – the courses referred to in other institutions as EMBAs.

Booth, the second-oldest business school in the US, launched its EMBA programme in 1943, as a way to provide business training to people whose lives had been disrupted by the second world war. (A few years earlier, the school had also begun offering MBA classes in the evening.)

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Sunil Kumar, the dean, says that basic principle still applies: the XP courses train business managers who have not received training before and for whom their timetable precludes full-time study.

The regular MBA programme offers students considerable freedom in designing their own courses, but the irregular EMBA calendar denies XP students that flexibility. “They go through the programme in lock-step,” Kumar says. “They lose the independence, but that means they feel closer to each other.”

Booth sees XP programmes as a critical aspect of its overall educational offering, enabling students who cannot spend a couple of years in Chicago the opportunity to experience what the school has to offer.

Booth also runs XP programmes in Singapore and London. A task force is currently reviewing the school’s global strategy, and although it is yet to make its recommendations, Kumar speculates that technology could be used to bring executive business education to even more far-flung or time-limited students in future.

“By providing us access to a talent pool that would not come to the full-time programme, the XP expands our reach,” he says. “The question is how to leverage the technology without diluting the experience.”

XP students work on problems at other companies as part of a compulsory course in which they do strategy research for ­businesses that are not their own.

“You don’t want to be myopic and think about problems within your business only from a narrow, company-specific perspective,” says the dean. “Part of the goal of the programme is to broaden the horizons of these people.”

In terms of what sets a Booth EMBA apart, Kumar argues that an important aspect is the proprietary nature of all the programmes. “The XP students get the full flavour of our educational experience – the emphasis on fundamentals complemented by practical courses and the insistence on rigour at all levels.”

That ethos, he says, was encapsulated on a T-shirt he was given while interviewing for the school’s top job. It bore the motto: “Question everything”.

The attitude was underlined when he gave his inaugural talk as dean. “A junior faculty member in the audience questioned my methodology. There aren’t many schools where a junior faculty member would tell the dean he didn’t think highly of his research paper,” he says, chuckling.

“I find that stimulating,” Kumar adds. “I say that ‘friction produces light’ at Chicago Booth. We’re an ideas-based meritocracy. I love that.”

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