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Rotman Dean, Roger Martin: In Search of the 3D MBA

Posted by: Helen Walters on October 27, 2009

Roger Martin is dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. He’s a familiar figure around these parts—yesterday, we published my review of his latest book, The Design of Business and in the past we published a series of extracts from another of his books, The Opposable Mind.

Recently, I heard Roger present at BIF5, a conference held in Providence, Rhode Island (here, see notes taken there by master-live-blogger Ethan Zuckerman). And I confess, I was taken aback. Though still mild-mannered and softly spoken, Martin was steely and unamused as he discussed a topic that’s close to his heart: business education. He quoted from The Economist, which said that the current system does no less than produce “jargon-spewing, economic vandals,” a phrase that made the audience gasp and titter in about equal measure. [[UPDATE: You can see the whole talk in question here.]]

The talk raised to the surface a topic that I hear numerous parties discussing, but around which there seems to be little consensus. At least, everyone seems to agree that multidisciplinary thinking is a critical skill that needs to be nurtured in tomorrow’s workforce, yet no one has any idea how to go about changing the existing system so that it can be taught effectively.

Martin referred to the need for a 3D MBA, which marries the teaching of a deep knowledge of facts and theories with the wisdom and skill needed to be able to apply them in the real world. I really like the idea, and I loved Martin’s terse wake-up call to educators and would-be innovators. But how would this work in practice? How can the higher education system evolve appropriately—and quickly—to produce professionals who are equipped to drive the world in the direction it needs to go? Which schools or organizations are actually proficient at teaching or encouraging interdisciplinary thinking? How do they do it? Let me know—would love others’ insight on this hugely important topic.

Reader Comments

Scott MacInnes

October 27, 2009 11:39 PM

clearly something has to give - after the past five or six decades of self indulgent consumerism in which most of us have grown up and the mantra of "capitalism at any expense" that seems to have been motivating our most admired business schools...

check out the MBA program at CCA

and more at

Helen Walters

October 28, 2009 7:56 AM

Thanks, Scott. Actually, CCA was one of the schools we featured in our "D-schools list" this year, a list of business and design schools we feel are really making an attempt to teach a new way of thinking. I'm really proud of our work on this list, but am well aware that it only goes so far. For instance, we chose to highlight specific master's programs. Shouldn't interdisciplinary thinking be fostered at a much younger age? Anyone got examples of that in action?

Melissa Carrier

October 28, 2009 10:53 AM

At the Smith School of Business we are experimenting with models for a multi-disciplinary education in our undergraduate and MBA programs as well as collaborative cross campus masters programs. There is ground swell among Deans and administrators to educate a new type of leader. As the director of the Center for Social Value Creation, I also see clear demand for these skills in private and social sector organizations (

Chris Flanagan

October 28, 2009 2:48 PM

Hi Helen - To your question about fostering interdisciplinary thinking at a younger age, might have to leave the U.S. for some good examples. Singapore jumps to mind.

Last summer, Frans Johansson (author of The Medici Effect) partnered with Lim Chin Wah, founder of Genesis Education Holdings, a cutting-edge educational services company to develop a new curriculum targeting junior high, high school and junior college students based on creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship.

They spent six months breaking down the corporate teachings of The Medici Effect in order to rebuild them for school age kids. The end result: a 3-day program which takes kids out of the classroom and into the real world.

Johansson says the program gives kids the chance to think beyond standardized testing rituals – a path Singapore is trying to break away from. The 'Innovation Strategy' curriculum offers an opportunity for students to both develop and execute new ideas by placing them in various "intersections" outside of school. It also gives them the chance to be curious and build intrigue, trust, and teamwork. Although experimentation rules, Johansson says it’s the kinetic element of the program that’s most critical: “In Singapore, they have a philosophy that you can improve learning if you move outside the walls of your classroom.”

Fred Collopy

October 29, 2009 3:01 PM

Hi Helen,

Your interest in fixing higher business education is clearly on point. And you serve a critical role as a key editor who curates and organizes the ideas that gain currency. Inter-disciplinary thinking is clearly one such idea. I think that others include critically thinking about particular models of business. How many of our graduates can really speak to what a particular business is; what it does well; why it should exist? Another is how to deepen empathy (organizational, customer and social empathy). The most inspiring thing that I heard at AIGA was Liz Coleman's (President of Bennington) talk on Design and the Liberal Arts Education. She seems to get it.

One of the respondents to your post suggested that we need to foster interdisciplinary thinking at a younger age. Close to home for me is an initiative in the Cleveland Public School District called Design Lab. This is a new school (currently 186 freshmen and sophomores) in which design serves as the organizing theme for the curriculum, which is aimed at engaging mostly first generation college-bound students. I can give you contact information for that if you're interested.

My colleagues and I posted some of our thoughts on the problem of fixing management education on the HBS blog:


October 30, 2009 5:48 AM

Thank you for sharing information. Your post is really interesting but I enjoyed reading comments on your post more than your post. It's really fun reading it.

Ali Nasir

November 4, 2009 12:11 AM

Hi Helen.
Taking courses with Dean Roger Martin during my stay at Rotman, especially his Integrative Thinking course, was a wonderful experience. The real problem lies in the "application of those theories in the real world". Application of out of the box ideas are generally not liked by most professionals. By the time, one reaches the helm of management, all those learning gets old and faded.

In my opinion, business programs should foresee what is coming ahead in twenty years and tailor their programs accordingly. This would require collaboration of different departments in a university. At present, this dynamics is missing.

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