The exception proves the rule, they say. So, while most business schools believe the best way to run a school is to appoint a dean as manager-in-chief, SDA Bocconi in Italy is showing that a very different approach can also succeed.

Deans at the Milanese business school continue to teach classes and conduct research, leaving the management of the school to managing director Andrea Gasparri, a staff member.

Moreover, while most deans in the US or Europe hold the post for five or 10 years – or even longer – at SDA Bocconi the tenure of the dean has just been cut from three years to two.

The latest professor to step up to the dean’s role is Alberto Grando, an operations and technology expert and a visiting professor at Cranfield in the UK.

Quietly spoken and unassuming, Professor Grando, 49, appears a very different character from Maurizio Dallocchio, his flamboyant predecessor. While Prof Dallochio was a dedicated marathon runner, Prof Grando is a classicist by training.

Prof Grando is unperturbed by the short duration of his tenure. He sees his role as continuing to implement the long-term strategy of the school, decided at board level.

At the heart of this is the need for the business school to become a player on the international stage while retaining its position as Italy’s number one business school.

Prof Grando sees SDA Bocconi’s Italian base as critical. “Deeply rooted in the Bocconi culture is the fact that we have to serve the Italian market,” he says. It is a philosophy that permeates every department at the business school, from degree programmes to executive education.

Fundamental to the strategy of serving both the domestic and the international market is the division between the different types of programmes.

Those programmes, notably the undergraduate and pre-experience masters degree, which are taught in the main university, Università Commerciale Luigi Bocconi, are focused on the domestic Italian market, while post- experience, post-graduate degrees, such as the MBA, which are taught in the business school – SDA stands for Scuola di Direzione Aziendale (school of business management) – look outside Italy.

“One of the aims of the the changes was to align the graduate school to the typical graduate school in the international market,” says Prof Grando.

Also to internationalise the school, the board has ruled that 50 per cent of faculty appointments have to be “international”. That is, 50 per cent of new faculty have had to study outside Italy, even if they are Italian citizens.

And in line with its global aspirations, last month Bocconi announced that it is the first Italian university to launch a fund-raising campaign. Although more than 75 per cent of Bocconi’s current income comes from fees, rather than government, the university has set itself the target of raising €100m in the next 10 years.

The money will be used to fund scholarships and professorial chairs, as well as more general projects.

As Prof Grando points out, like many European business schools, Bocconi has had to implement enormous changes over the past few years as a direct result of the Bologna accord.

This initiative by the European Union seeks to standardise European higher education in order to make the qualifications in all countries compatible, along the bachelor, masters and doctoral lines.

So the four-year Italian “laurea” – which often took six or seven years to complete – has been replaced by a three-year undergraduate degree and a two-year masters programme. Both have to be completed in the allotted time.

This summer will see the first students graduate from the three-year bachelor programme at Bocconi, and they will undergo a further selection process to be included on the masters programme – in the past this progression was automatic.

As well as these externally-imposed changes, the Bocconi board has also decided on internal reorganisations to make the programmes the school offers more effective in the market.

“We’re working on reshaping the divisions and the knowledge units to increase the level of interfunctionality,” says Prof Grando. “We want to link the research to executive education and publish our research for the market.”

The school has completely redesigned its 14-month full-time MBA and has launched a part-time MBA for the Italian market. By 2008, the programme will be taught in English.

The school has also launched a series of specialised masters degrees for those with a number of years of work experience. These include degrees in human resources, public management, healthcare and, last but not least, fashion.

As part of the school’s plan to increase its international reach, it is launching a number of masters degrees with non-Italian business schools: HR management with Rutgers in the US; marketing and sales with Esade in Spain and Cornell in the US; and technology, possibly with Fudan in Shanghai.

Also with Fudan, the school is beginning a two-year MSc programme in international management.

One year will be taught in Shanghai, the other in Milan. The first intake will have 30 Chinese students, but in the long-term the aim is to have 100 students enrolling in China and a second stream of 100 enrolling in Italy.

On top of all that, the school has completely redesigned its programmes for the open enrolment market for 2007.

Part of Bocconi’s problems have been that 80 per cent of Italians work in companies with fewer than 250 employees and nearly half (47 per cent) of the working population is employed by companies with fewer than 10 employees.

This means that companies are loath to lose employees on lengthy open enrolment programmes and as a result, although Bocconi runs 400 programmes a year, most are between one and three days in length.

The aim now is to move towards modular courses, where participants can study for one or two days at a time, but can attend several over a period of time.

The school is also looking to build strong relationships with some of Italy’s biggest companies, such as Pirelli, to develop its custom education business.

If the next two years is anything like the last two, Prof Grando will certainly have enough to keep him busy.

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