Innovation

Winning Ideas for the Future of B-Schools


Alice Stewart has spent the past year working with colleagues to develop a proposal for an MBA program at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, a process that got her thinking about ways business education could be transformed. As a professor of strategic management, she had observed that business students coming into her classroom might become more effective managers if they had a better grasp of more specialized knowledge, such as engineering or biotechnology, when they get into the workforce.

When she learned that the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) was holding a contest asking for ideas to improve management education, she jotted some musings on paper. She envisioned professors from different disciplines creating micro-curriculums, where they'd weave content together from business education, engineering, and the sciences. Students who completed the classes, which she dubbed "stackable knowledge units," would get a certificate. Eventually, they could combine these certificates to earn a business degree, she wrote in her proposal, thereby allowing students to customize their education track.

"We are trapped by the concept of a degree and the concept of a curriculum," Stewart said. "There needs to be a rethinking of what it is we are supposed to be doing in higher education."

Stewart's bold idea has had a big payoff. Today she learned she is the first-place winner of GMAC's Ideas to Innovation contest and will be receiving the top cash prize of $50,000. Hers was one of 20 winning entries from professors, students, and executives who will share the $262,500 in prizes that the Graduate Management Admission Council, which administers the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT), set aside for the contest.

Open Call for Entries

The testing organization launched the contest in July, asking people to submit a one-page summary of an idea they believed had the potential to improve management education. GMAC's Management Education for Tomorrow (MET) Fund, a $10 million fund that seeks to improve business education globally, is overseeing the contest and providing funding. It is the first time that GMAC has launched such a contest and the organization decided to open it to anyone around the world who had a suggestion, whether he or she was involved in the management education world or not, says Dave Wilson, president and chief executive officer of GMAC.

"There have been lots of blue-ribbon commissions and studies of management education that have come out and talked about the future of management education, but what we realized is every one of those things pretty much brings together the same minds who have thought about it before," says Wilson. "This contest opened up the idea phase to absolutely anyone. Even a taxi driver could make a submission."

GMAC may not have received submissions from taxi drivers, but the contest did get an overwhelming response that exceeded GMAC's expectations. By the submission deadline in the fall, GMAC had received more than 650 entries from 60 countries around the world, including India, China, the U.K., Israel, and the United Arab Emirates, Wilson says. Of the ideas, 57 percent came from students, alumni, and prospective students, while 11 percent were from faculty and school staff.

"Building Your Own Degree"

So what made Stewart's idea stand out from the pack? Allen Brandt, director of the GMAC MET Fund, calls it "a very interesting way of taking something that exists in a school and repackaging it in a new way that no one has thought of." Says Brandt: "This is essentially building your own degree based on creating stackable units. It is something that is different enough and could help you, as an individual student, in approaching a program in the way you want to do it without a wholesale change to the existing way a school is working."

The judges, who included corporate executives, whittled that list down to 20 winning entries, picking one first-place winner, four second-place winners, 10 third-place winners, and five honorable mentions. The contest winners include a business professor from Vanderbilt University's Owen Graduate School of Management (Owen Full-Time MBA Profile), a biochemistry research technician, an intelligence officer from the Defense Intelligence Agency, a corporate psychologist, MBA alums, and current B-school students.

For example, Dawn Iacobucci, the Vanderbilt professor and a second-place winner, proposes that MBA students be required to submit a business plan in order to graduate from their program. An MBA student from France who took third place, Orsolya Oszabo, says she'd like to see the business school admissions process overhauled, with a special emphasis placed on evaluating students' social skills. Pritesh Sikchi, an entrepreneur from India who also took a third-place prize, suggests that GMAC build a global business library for its member schools, where they could share reports and case studies and network with each other.

The next phase of the contest is putting some of these ideas into action, which will require the input and involvement of business schools and not-for-profit organizations around the world, says Wilson. All of the top ideas are now posted on the MET Fund's website; business schools have until next September to submit a proposal that discusses their favorite idea and how they would implement it at their institution. Judges will review the entries, pick the most promising, and then award grants from the MET Fund that will allow the schools to start moving forward.

"I'm sure some of these ideas will fall on the cutting-room floor at a certain point, but there may be a handful that are real victories that will be able to be used by business schools," says Alex Sevilla, chair of GMAC's board of directors and assistant dean of the University of Florida's Warrington College of Business Administration (Warrington Full-Time MBA Profile).

Opportune Time

The GMAC contest comes at an opportune time for the management education world, says Srikant Datar, co-author of Rethinking the MBA: Business Education at a Crossroads and an accounting professor at Harvard Business School (Harvard Full-Time MBA Profile). In the wake of the financial crisis, business schools were besieged by criticism, and many observers questioned the direction that business schools were headed, as well as the value of an MBA, Datar says. Since then, some B-schools have begun to strengthen areas like leadership development and critical or integrative thinking, and develop more flexible curriculums. But innovation needs to be more widespread in the business school world, a sentiment that is expressed by the wide range of ideas submitted to GMAC, Datar says.

"I am thrilled that a very different set of people are feeling a similar set of concerns about what the unmet needs are in business education," Datar says. "And, of course, the next step is how do we go about changing some of what is currently being done in order to reform or change management education."

GMAC is hoping that some of these ideas will have a profound and long-lasting impact on management education for future generations, says GMAC's Wilson, who served as one of the judges in the final round of the contest. Business schools that submit proposals to GMAC in the coming months will be bidding for a "good chunk" of the $10 million in the MET Fund, he says. But the seed money that GMAC will be giving the business schools may, in some cases, be just enough to get these ideas off the ground, he says.

"The $10 million in the MET Fund may sound like a lot of money, and to GMAC it is, but for business schools it may well take fives times or 10 times that to have any influence," he says. "What we really hope is that this can be seen as an angel investment, or as a catalyst, for long-lasting change."

Damast is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek.

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