Experimental feature

Listen to this article

Experimental feature

It was obvious to those of us paying attention back in the 1970s that things were changing, and changing fast, in the business world. Companies were becoming more complex, technological, competitive and global. To manage these enterprises, we believed, took a different set of skills from those traditionally taught at most business schools.

The fact of the matter was, you were not going to get as far as you needed to get simply by reading another case study – an academic exercise, not altogether worthless, but too often disconnected from actual business practice. In a rapidly changing world, students would not really benefit by hearing about current problems, since those lessons could be obsolete by the time these students graduated.

Instead, what you needed were tough-minded analytical tools to keep up with an increasingly competitive commercial landscape that was spilling across borders.

You also needed people who understood, and who actually enjoyed, working with others and getting them to perform at their best.

Organisational structures and strategic models called for managers who knew how to collaborate with one another – sometimes across continents – to solve real problems, not hypothetical ones dreamed up in an ivory tower.

This changing business world called for a new teaching model by professors steeped in research and equally open to collaboration. Learning needed to be a two-way street in which students and faculty could continually learn from each other – with professors educating students on theory, and students linking this back to their practical experiences.

What is more, business schools needed to educate these people over the long haul. Companies were looking to keep their executives sharp over time – and even those with formal business degrees found that their skills needed to be updated five years or so after graduation. Strategy that worked two years ago was not guaranteed to work this year or next. To stay on top in this kind of environment meant embracing a concept that some of my colleagues and I had long been passionate about: lifelong learning.

And since Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management was not an ivory tower kind of place, but one with a long history of listening to practitioners, we knew we had a great opportunity to bring executives and academics together so that they could learn from each other. Truthfully, the school had been running programmes along these lines since the 1950s, but by 1975 we knew we needed something more ambitious than just the three- or four-week modules that had been part of our curriculum.

So we pushed and pushed hard, to pioneer a new style of management education, one centred around the concept of continuous education.

We knew that the MBA could no longer be seen as a terminal degree – things were changing too fast for a one-size-fits-all treatment – but instead as a step along the way in a person’s professional development.

To put our philosophy into action, we took some gambles, such as creating the first executive living/learning facility, the James L. Allen Center, when no one else could figure out how to make this model work. It is worth noting that a lot of people bet against the Allen Center and the idea of making executive education a priority. And, frankly, they were right to be dubious, since this kind of thing had not been attempted before – not successfully anyway, and not on the scale that we believed was necessary to meet the market demand. From conception to fundraising to building, the Allen Center was up and running in four years. Little did we know at the time that this “gamble” would become the prototype for programmes in the US and beyond.

This was not our first calculated risk. By 1970, Northwestern was out of the business of providing undergraduate business education and, instead, focused on graduate studies exclusively. We also shifted away from the MBA degree in favour of the MM – master of management – a credential we believed more accurately reflected the general management strengths that our school was providing and that the market was seeking. Management skills were not just for corporate settings, we said. They could be applied in non-profit and government settings too, and this represented another important market trend that we wanted to get ahead of.

Given this entrepreneurial approach, as well as Northwestern’s decent, but unexceptional, reputation in the early 1970s, it was no surprise that we needed to look harder than our more famous peers to attract talented students.

We did so by personally interviewing every student and looking beyond their academic credentials and scores. These were also important, but we were looking for a new kind of student who could benefit from what we believed was the future of management education: collaborative learning.

We wanted people, both students and faculty, who could work in teams, since this was the direction we believed the market was heading.

Frankly, at first we really needed to interview everyone who walked in the door, since we were resource-constrained and still building our graduate programme at the time. But later, we continued the practice because we wanted to preserve the unique culture that we had created by attracting those who were eager to work collaboratively and who would, as time went on, take leadership roles in helping drive the school forward.

In fact, one of our defining ideas was to start treating our students as customers. These were bright people with business experience and ideas of their own, and we knew we needed to treat them that way to get them more deeply involved with running the school, and get them engaged with each other to help enhance their education by letting them learn not only from our professors, but from each other.

This was a good strategy, we felt, because it helped bolster the school’s lean administration. And enlisting the students to help run the place proved to be an extraordinary leadership opportunity for them too, especially since more recruiters were expecting sharper, more experienced MBAs right out of the gates. Soon these students were producing all kinds of academic conferences, running dozens of clubs and generally becoming engaged in the kind of close-knit activities, inside and outside the classroom, that have cultivated an esprit that is very difficult to create in other organisations. As a result, we found that our students were working wonderfully in cross-functional teams in ways that simulated professional circumstances.

We believed, and still do, that you can read about business and learn some things, but when you combine that classroom training with experiential learning – going out and actually seeing what works and what does not – that is when you understand the thousand-and-one parts that make a modern venture go. Our approach has worked out well, and most of the academic world has followed our lead. This emulation is flattering but also valuable: it has challenged Kellogg in the top league.

Donald P Jacobs is dean emeritus, Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University

Get alerts on Business education when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.

Comments have not been enabled for this article.

Follow the topics in this article