SOM launches new business curriculum

The School of Management implemented the first stage of its new interdisciplinary business curriculum Tuesday as students in the Class of 2008 began their courses in the first of the curriculum’s three modules.

SOM’s new curriculum for first-year students, which was revised last spring in an effort to better integrate business education into relevant real-world settings, is divided into three segments: “Orientation to Management,” “Organizational Perspectives,” and an “Integrated Leadership Perspective”. The first, Orientation to Management, aims to teach students basic skills that will be built upon in the curriculum’s later modules, and includes a year-long Mentoring Program.

SOM Dean Joel Podolny said the revision of the school’s management curriculum was based on employers’ growing need for MBA graduates able to think in a cross-disciplinary fashion that matches the modern business world.

“The management profession has experienced profound change in the past few decades, but management education has not,” Podolny said. “Today a successful manager must be able to identify and frame business problems and move across a variety of organizational, political and geographic boundaries to solve those problems.”

Podolny said he is confident that the current curriculum addresses this need and will better prepare SOM graduates for the professional world.

The Mentoring Program meets once a semester and brings together 14 first-year management students with a faculty member, a staff member, and a second-year student. Students are also required to meet regularly with their faculty mentor and at least once each with staff and second-year student mentors.

SOM professor Heidi Brooks, who led development of the program, said student-mentor meetings will follow and address issues raised in class while also providing the structure and support for students to define and pursue their academic, personal and career goals.

“The Mentoring Program capitalizes on the primary advantage of a small school — personal relationships,” Brooks said. “Not only do students get to know key faculty, staff and second-year students, but being known increases their sense of personal accountability.”

SOM professor Ravi Dhar, who assisted in developing the new business curriculum, said that although classes have only been up and running for a couple of days, they have been running smoothly.

“A lot of preparation went into this all summer and so a lot of contingencies were already thought through,” Dhar said.

Professor Sharon Oster said the classes currently underway in the first module have been focused on concepts such as statistics and fundamental economics, which are essential to the success of the curriculum’s later stages.

“The first modules going on now are more discipline-based, teaching fundamental tools like data analysis and accounting,” Oster said. “In six weeks (when the next module starts), we will begin to take those tools and introduce others in order to work in a more contextualized and integrated way. But the tools certainly need to come first.”

Unlike traditional business courses — which are offered as discrete subjects such as Economics, Finance and Marketing — the skill-based courses offered in the first module focus on abilities like data analysis and problem-framing that are applicable across a wide spectrum of business disciplines.

Dhar said the methodologies and ways of thinking currently being introduced in this first module are designed to feed into specific perspectives in the next portion of the curriculum.

“These kind of tools don’t necessarily map one-to-one,” Dhar said. “Problem-framing is certainly relevant for a case relating to how one deals with a customer, but it is just as relevant for a case on how to deal with a competitor.”

Oster, who will be teaching a class focused on “The Competitor” in the second Organizational Perspectives module, said the next stage of the curriculum will do even more to break down boundaries between business disciplines than the current skill-based courses.

“We’re trying to bring the same disciplinary tools to bear, but bring them together simultaneously,” Oster said. “Rather than segment the pieces into different courses, we bring them together in one course. That is really the nature of this curriculum.”

For example, Oster’s “The Competitor” course addresses the fundamental question of how a manager deals with competitors in the business world by examining how competitors behave across a range of different fields and from a variety of different disciplinary perspectives.

A similar class in the second module taught by Dhar addresses issues raised by “The Customer,” most of which are partially dealt with in a conventional economics or marketing course.

“The idea is to emphasize the notion that marketing is understanding customers and translate that into a company’s products and advertisements,” Dhar said. “But in reorganizing the curriculum we decided while the functional aspect is important, the most important thing is how an entire organization has to be centered around understanding customers.”

Dhar, who met with industry executives in the course of designing the new curriculum, said he frequently tells a story about one chief financial officer of a large retailer who reported that his corporation spent $7 million to clean his stores’ floors because he knew that maintenance is important to customers, despite the fact that most business school students might regard such intensive upkeep as an unnecessary cost.

“To people in the industry, it’s a no-brainer that business schools should be doing this,” Dhar said of the new curriculum and specifically of his course’s treatment of the customer. “Rather than adapt a customer to what you have, you must adapt what you have to a customer and his or her needs.”

SOM’s next module in Organizational Perspectives is estimated to begin in mid-October and run for approximately 12 weeks.

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