October 17, 2010 7:16 pm

Two heads are better than one

Stuart Briers illustration

Last month, professors at Columbia Business School in New York were offered a bit of a treat. They were given the chance to earn an extra $30,000 to $40,000 a year if they instigated research with professors from other departments within the school. Why, the uninitiated might ask, would professors be paid so much extra to do what, after all, is part of their job?

The answer is that getting professors to conduct joint research and teaching across departments is as difficult as the proverbial herding of cats. Ask a marketing professor to collaborate with a marketing professor from another institution or another country and they will happily comply. Ask them to collaborate with someone from the finance department in their own business school and they will run a mile. The problem is particularly acute in US business schools, where only high-quality research publications can guarantee the coveted tenured professorship – the job for life.

This quest has been on for the past 20 years to find the Holy Grail of the business school world: how to persuade professors to turn their focus away from their narrow lines of research and teach students to understand business and management as they can expect to experience it in the workplace. Almost everyone in business school acknowledges that students should be taught in an inter­disciplinary fashion – that, after all, is the way good business works.

So it is not surprising that Columbia has become the latest business school to grasp the nettle. Glenn Hubbard, dean, says: “When students come here they get an MBA, not an economics, marketing or strategy degree.” One of the things that quickly became apparent in the 2007-08 financial crisis, he adds, was “how business people failed to connect the dots”. His approach has been honest. “One way is to say to faculty that there is an intellectual problem out there,” he says. But, in the end, he concedes: “I told faculty I would give them extra money.”

To focus professorial minds, the school has set up two cross-
disciplinary areas (CDAs) of research and teaching, one in decision and negotiation and the other in strategy. Up to four faculty members are involved in team-teaching classes in these areas. As well as funding faculty to conduct research in these two areas, the school will make appointments directly to the CDAs.

“There is an imperative to do this because the problems of the day demand it,” says Gita Johar, vice-dean for research at Columbia. She applauds the funding initiative. “Initially it was an idea – it got legs because it got resources.”

There are more than just financial rewards involved in the CDAs. “Faculty associated with the CDAs have an input into who gets hired.”

Nonetheless, even the dean acknowledges that converting a faculty of 140 is likely to take some time. Prof Johar argues, though, that starting at grassroots level in one controlled area – research, say – and expanding from there is likely to gain more traction than revamping the whole curriculum from scratch.

One school that made the decision to opt for the latter approach is Yale School of Management. Several years into the project, Sharon Oster, dean, says the project is working well, with team-teaching well established in core courses. But she believes that Yale enjoys advantages that other schools do not. “We are relatively small and we have always had connectivity between faculty. Our faculty have lunch across departmental barriers.” She also points out that, relative to the other top US schools, Yale has a low student to faculty ratio.

The process is expensive, says Prof Oster, with faculty members given full teaching credits for teaching a class with a colleague in just the same way as they would if they had taught the class alone. But in the end, says Prof Oster, it is worth it. “We get such great reactions from the faculty involved.”

At the Rotman school at the University of Toronto in Canada, Roger Martin, dean, has been applying his integrative thinking approach for more than a decade and says trying to persuade professors to team-teach does not work. “It is very little use trying to get professors to do things they don’t know how to do and are difficult, scary and time-consuming. You have to figure out a way that doesn't make them do something that they don’t want to do and are not good at.”

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