Last updated: November 29, 2010 11:47 am

On a mission to find an MBA strategy

 
 

Sally Blount is getting down to business. As the newly appointed dean of the Kellogg school at Northwestern University near Chicago, the chic 48-year-old professor is taking the school back to its roots as one of the few top US business schools that focuses on teaching management rather than finance and economics.

Fast-talking and forthright, and a specialist in negotiation and behavioural decision-making, Prof Blount says she is perplexed about how MBAs have been hijacked by the finance industry.


“One of the things that interests me is how the MBA has become associated with market making,” she says. “At Kellogg, only 20 per cent of graduates go into financial services” and teamwork and collaboration come top of the skills list. “Kellogg has figured this out. Our challenge is what comes next.”

There will clearly be a new direction based on Prof Blount’s vision that Kellogg should be a world-class global business school. Unlike many of her peers, she is unafraid to point out that the two-year premium MBA degree may be usurped by the one-year upstart, even at Kellogg.

“Over time, we will be shrinking the two-year and expanding the one-year programme,” she says. Today there are close to 100 students on the Kellogg one-year MBA, which runs from June to June. The two-year programme enrols 500 students. The big difference is that the majority of the students on the one-year programme (56 per cent) are from outside the US.

As a result, Prof Blount talks about taking the Kellogg one-year MBA outside the US and teaching it in overseas locations.

That would be in contrast to Kellogg’s existing overseas strategy, which relies on partnerships with schools in Canada, Germany, Hong Kong and Israel solely for the Executive MBA degree.

Prof Blount describes these partnerships, signed by former dean Don Jacobs, as “a great late 20th century strategy”. But now things have changed. “We’ve got to be creative; the world has changed. I’m open to a lot of models. I want to find the right answer.”

She is four months into the job and, she acknowledges, is still earning the trust of the faculty. There needs to be a cultural change at Kellogg, she says, to enable the school to become a global force. The shift involves faculty, students and particularly administration. However, she accepts that “it takes years to change culture”.

But changes outside the business school will force changes inside. “The world is global,” says Prof Blount, adding, “except perhaps for [in] higher education”. She says globalisation will lead to the emergence of 25 global cities – intellectual, social, economic and cultural capitals. She sees one of her wider goals as ensuring that Chicago becomes one of those 25 cities and plans to work with the city and neighbouring business school Chicago Booth to make that happen.

So how will Kellogg expand overseas? Prof Blount says that some of Kellogg’s overseas expansion will involve bricks and mortar, while elsewhere it will involve partnerships.

“My guess is that it will be a different decision in different regions.” But she is in no doubt about one thing: “We need money for our global play.”

As a private business school that has traditionally paid its own way, Kellogg cannot rely on the endowments of a Harvard or a Stanford, nor can it rely on the state funding of a University of California school.

A first saving has been to reduce the size of the proposed new building on the Evanston campus. The money saved will be invested not overseas but in Kellogg’s second US campus in Miami, a campus established by Dipak Jain, Prof Blount’s predecessor, and a potential centre for more executive education programmes, a key money-spinner.

Retaining and appointing faculty stars is one reason why academic costs have risen in higher education in general, as is the high-intensity teaching method. “Face-to-face learning is expensive,” says Prof Blount. On one level Kellogg will reduce overheads by putting more basic lectures online. “Basic courses will go electronic and face-to-face will be more nuanced.”

Moreover, she intends to supplement her highly paid faculty stars with business practitioners – or clinicians, as she calls them. This is a long-term project, and Prof Blount acknowledges that these practitioners need to be taught the best way to teach – possibly an industry-wide initiative. “It’s not easy to walk in off the street and teach . . . The Socratic method of teaching doesn’t come easily to business people.”

This will be part of the dean’s plan to enhance the MBA curriculum, by including sociopolitics as well as business.

“We have to broaden the business school curriculum. We have to educate leaders who go back and forth [between business and government].”

As well as putting more basic courses online, the classroom learning will take a different format. In the new Evanston building there will be added investment in smaller classroom facilities, rather than the large lecture theatres, so that the school can introduce classes of 40 to 50 students at a time and work groups of 15 to 20 people, a policy increasingly adopted by US business schools.

But unlike many top US schools, and perhaps because of the increasing emphasis on the one-year degree, Prof Blount says Kellogg will not seek to enrol younger students. “I believe people need work experience,” she says. “If we have the best curriculum, the best students will follow.”

Where new programmes are introduced it is likely to be executive short courses rather than a specialist degree for students in their early 20s. Apart from the obvious revenue implications, Prof Blount is clear about the educational benefit of teaching older students. “You don’t learn everything by the time you’re 30,” she says.

Although Prof Blount is clearly eager to get moving at Kellogg, she is also deeply thoughtful about the role of business and business schools. “Business is the dominant social institution of our age,” she says, “[although] you can agree or disagree that that is a good thing.” She says business needs people who are not making money every day – professors – to stand outside the system and reflect on what is happening.

A social scientist by training, she believes that managers are still novices at creating effective organisations and have to face vast levels of complexity on a daily basis. She argues that technology, properly harnessed, can help deal with that complexity.

“Our technology knowledge outstrips our ability to create robust organisations,” she adds. It may be a policy she employs as she drives to place Kellogg on a strong global footing.

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