MBA students have designs on innovation

There is nothing new about the idea that product design matters to business: whether you manufacture tea cosies or build software, your company will surely live or die by the quality of your double stitching or your user interface. However, until now business schools offering an MBA, the gold standard business qualification, have put little emphasis on the subject of design.

Many MBA programmes touch on design at some level, in the context of entrepreneurship or marketing modules, for example, and a few offer elective courses in subjects such as design management. But traditionally the real meat of these programmes is found in core modules such as economics, finance and the principles of general management.

In the past three years, however, Mark Breitenberg, dean of undergrad­uate education at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, has noticed that appreciation by businesses of the importance of design has grown tremendously. Companies such as Procter & Gamble, he says have told him they have to be “design-driven”.

He notes with enthusiasm it is a “great thing for a design school to live in a time when the business world is realising the importance of design, creativity and innovation” and that certain “progressive” business schools, as he calls them, have understood the importance of this trend.

Hence Art Center recently an­nounced plans to collaborate with Esade Business School in Barcelona, particularly in the field of executive education – short non-degree courses for company employees. It has also begun talks with the UCLA Anderson School of Management in Los Angeles.

But its longest-running joint venture is with Insead Business School which has campuses in France and Singapore.

Since 2005, Insead has been welcoming groups of eight to 10 of the centre’s design students for the spring term of its MBA programme. For four months the students live, socialise and study with Insead’s MBA students. But their primary involvement is in an elective course called Strategies for Product and Service Development, run by Manuel Sosa, assistant professor of technology and operations management at Insead.

MBA students on the elective course are placed in groups, with each group assigned a design student and a specific “market pain” to grapple with. This might be a gap in the market or an insufficiency in an existing service or product.

The design students’ strength lies in their ability to visualise and model both tangible and intangible products and concepts. Prof Sosa says it is amazing to watch the MBA students as they realise “about tangible aspects of ideas”.

Feedback from students and recruiters has been positive, remarks Prof Sosa, and MBA participants who might not have considered the elective course before have successfully applied for jobs in product development or design, or for posts that companies are forming in newer disciplines such as innovation management.

Collaboration

On the other side of the coin, there is stiff competition among the Art Center students to win a place on the Insead exchange programme and Mr Breitenberg says it has also spawned much greater interest in the internal business courses the centre has been offering to its own students since 2002.

As well as luring “creative types” into the MBA classroom, the collaboration also involves a group of Insead’s MBA students paying a week-long visit to Pasadena to see how designers work and how the subject is taught. The theory is business has a lot to learn, not only from being more creative but also from embracing some of the design industry’s teaching and working practices.

That is a theory the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto has researched and developed under the auspices of its business design initiative, directed by Heather Fraser. According to Ms Fraser, best practices have been aggregated from industrial design, architecture, engineering and business schools and these have fed into a methodology that aims to bring “design-based principles and practices into business planning and development”.

The framework has three areas of focus: deep user understanding – appreciating and anticipating what the customer wants; concept visualisation; and strategic business design – how to translate innovation into strategy. As Ms Fraser puts it, it is all about channelling creativity to give a viable outcome.

The approach has been used by Rotman for tailor-made executive education courses, summer internship projects and diverse consultation work, including a redesign of services for patients undergoing chemotherapy at a Toronto hospital.

Partnership

The Rotman MBA also offers something similar to Insead with its design practicum. This is a second-year MBA elective course attended by approximately two-thirds MBA students and a third industrial design students from the Ontario College of Art and Design.

In the UK, David Gann, of Imperial College London is adamant design should be a core part of an MBA programme. He holds the technology and innovation management chair, a joint appointment between Imperial’s Tanaka Business School and its department of civil and environmental engineering. He has been heavily involved in a recent partnership between the engineering department, the business school and the Royal College of Art.

The plan involves forming a £5.8m centre called Design-London at RCA-Imperial, where students and faculty from the RCA and Imperial will work together and explore how design can be integrated more effectively with business and technology. An incubator and simulator will allow fresh ideas to be developed and tested. Nick Leon, former business development director for IBM and visiting fellow at Tanaka, has recently been named director of the centre.

MBA courses in accounting and operations management will never be replaced by sketching classes and modelling workshops, but it is highly likely that increasing numbers of business schools will begin to explore their creative side via links with art or design colleges.

Mr Breitenberg notes Art Center has had rather more calls on the subject recently, but resources are finite. “We would do 10 of these if we had the capacity,” he says.

When designers get a head for business, results can be surprising

The MBA programme at Tanaka Business School, Imperial College, London, includes an entrepreneurship course offering fellowships to Royal College of Art and Imperial graduates and doctoral researchers. The aim is to give participants a better idea of what a great idea might look like and how to get it to market. Recent projects have included:
Redesigning the wheel: Osmar Rodrigues completed a doctorate in vehicle design at RCA. Growing up in Brazil’s rugged countryside, he was aware that 90 per cent of agricultural roads are unsurfaced and getting stuck in mud causes great difficulties for farmers. Traditional wheels are also prone to crush crops, causing substantial loss. Mr Rodrigues designed a wheel resembling a “spherical birdcage covered in rubber” and with a group of MBA students is now on the look-out for investors.
Dateline for jobs: A specialist in design and three full-time MBA students identified a gap in the online recruitment market. They designed a website to match employers with people looking for temporary, unskilled or semi-skilled labour.
StickSafe: A product developed by an industrial designer with business input from a group of MBAs, including a trauma surgeon. It aims to reduce the incidence of needle stick injury (the second largest cause of injury in the National Health Service). The product is being trialled in several NHS trusts.

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