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If there is one thing business schools believe they are good at, it is teaching companies how to implement change in their organisations. These days business schools are having to practise what they preach.

Following widespread concern that MBA programmes were not fit for purpose, almost every business school worth its salt has spent the past few years scrutinising what it teaches and how it teaches it. Just how these schools have pushed through change could prove to be a blueprint for knowledge-based companies as well as other academic institutions.

While many top business schools have faced the same criticisms and most of them have opted for similar solutions, there is little uniformity in their approach for implementing curriculum changes. While some have worked from the bottom up – persuading faculty to change – others have taken a more executive approach.

In Canada at the Ivey school at the University of Western Ontario, Dean Carol Stephenson, who joined the school after a long career in the IT industry, treated the exercise as a business proposition.

“We treated this like a big project and used project management principles.”

Critical to success, she says, was ensuring there was a readiness for change and then setting up a task force to see it through. The school began with a survey of the internal community: 82 per cent said the school was ready for change.

“In the corporate sector that is a very good number to have,” says Ms Stephenson. When faculty and staff wavered, she says, she could always come back to that number.

Setting a timeline was particularly important. “I think sometimes people let things drift,” she says, “in the hope that they will go away.” Ivey implemented a brand new curriculum – moving from a traditional US two-year degree to a European-style one-year MBA programme – in less than a year.

Ms Stephenson’s top-down approach was the antithesis of that employed at the Haas school at Berkeley, California, where it took a year just to persuade faculty to adopt a new curriculum. Dean Tom Campbell, a mild-mannered career academic, took the time to ensure a collaborative approach.

He acknowledges this is different to the corporate world. “I think they [companies] would have cut things. If I had adopted that approach I would have failed.

“There are winners and. . . failures to win,” he says. “It tells nobody ‘no’; it says ‘not now’.”

Bargaining rights

At Yale School of Management, Dean Joel Podolny believed that saying “no” had to be part of the package. When Yale implemented a curriculum change some faculty lost the right to teach their favourite courses but Prof Podolny says that these professors were not given individual bargaining rights to make up for this. “I’m a big believer in the idea that when you’re talking about cultural change efforts, you can’t turn it into bargaining.”

What professors were given instead was the possibility of helping to make Yale a world leader in business education, he says. “I do believe there is a deep desire from faculty [for Yale] to be really seen as a leader.”

Like Ms Stephenson, Prof Podolny believes big changes require the buy-in by professors. “When I came in [to Yale] I think there was a feeling on the part of faculty that it was time for the school to change,” he says.

So it was at Stanford, which took a pummelling from the academic community in 2002 when one of its professors, Jeffrey Pfeffer, declared that MBA degrees were largely irrelevant to business success.

At Stanford, changes have been fundamental and students enrolling this autumn will get a very different programme to their predecessors, says Garth Saloner, professor of electronic commerce, strategic management and economics at the school. Courses will be tailored more to their individual abilities, there will be more study in smaller groups and a requirement for overseas experiences.

Central to making the scheme work was management of the professors, says Prof Saloner. “How do you get high touches in the classroom from people who want to sit and have deep thoughts?”

Stanford’s answer was to design a curriculum in a way that was both student- and faculty-friendly, he says. At the heart of the revised degree are changes to the core curriculum that mean not everyone has to sit the same accounting, finance or marketing course. Qualified accountants, for example, will congregate in study groups that work at a much more sophisticated level than those in which participants are new to the subject.

“It gives professors the opportunity to meet with a group of students and discuss topics which they (faculty) are passionate about and students care deeply about.”

Implement change

Timetabling has also helped endear professors to the changes. “You have to be creative, giving faculty time to do research,” says Prof Saloner. The trade-off has been that if faculty are prepared to fulfil their teaching requirements in intensive bursts – in the new MBA curriculum participants are required to study in five-day workshops – this frees up time for protracted periods of research.

Stanford faculty, says Prof Saloner, “have stepped up to the plate . . . I have been extremely gratified by the response.” At Yale it has been a similar story.

The message that comes across from all the schools is that careful management of faculty is critical, as is the acknowledgement that change is needed. Prof Podolny also argues that in an academic setting it is often easier to implement change if it is large-scale and comprehensive rather than incremental, because professors enjoy experimentation and risk-taking. Also, he says, it is more fun.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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