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This Is Not Your Father's MBA


In early 2002, the Lally School of Management & Technology at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute was in a rut. The program was lost in the shadows of bigger, more recognized schools, and enrollment was declining. The bucolic campus had its charms, but being a stone's throw from Albany, in Troy, N.Y., just didn't have the draw of a big city like New York or Boston. It was time for a change.

That's when administrators at Rensselaer decided to tear apart the traditional MBA curriculum. In its place they began building a new program from scratch -- and when the dust settled, what emerged last year was an MBA unlike any other. Rather than relying on conventional texts and case studies in standard courses like marketing and finance, educators, led by Iftekhar Hasan, Rensselaer's acting dean, designed a brand-new program teaming up professors to teach together and guide students through real-world business problems in a holistic way. "This is not your father's MBA," Hasan says.

For starters, the degree is broken down into five "streams of knowledge," rather than traditional majors or concentrations. Each stream delves into a different aspect of business, such as Creating & Managing an Enterprise, and Networks, Innovation & Value Creation. It's not that students don't learn economics, marketing, or strategy. Instead, each of those basics is blended into the larger concepts. A typical class might involve a discussion, led by a finance professor, of a company's change in value after a corporate merger, followed by a look at the case by a management prof from an operations point of view. Because the teaching is rooted in events in the contemporary marketplace, there are no textbooks per se. "Our textbooks are newspaper and magazine articles," says Phillip H. Phan, professor of strategic management and entrepreneurship.

To an outsider, a Rensselaer classroom might seem chaotic, with constant discussions and passionate opinions. In the Business Implications of Emerging Technologies stream, for example, students are divided into teams of four, each developing plans for patents on products dreamed up in RPI's Office of Technology Commercialization on another part of campus. The 30-odd students are scattered across the room, huddled around laptops and notebooks. The three professors who make up the teaching team -- biology, marketing, and sociology profs in this case -- wander around to each group.

It might seem an odd mix, but listen in for a while, and it all comes together. The marketer talks about breakthrough innovation. The biologist covers national policy and the science side of the students' projects. Then the sociologist leads a discussion on consumer trends. Student teams are left to process the information and draw up the best proposals. "The students are getting the functional material, but they're also understanding how that function operates," says Richard Leifer, associate professor and director of executive programs. "When they leave here, they know how to do project management because they've been through it, it's not just something they've heard about." Each stream follows a similar format.

MISSING PIECES

It's never easy leading a revolution, and Rensselaer's program has its challenges. Case in point: A few months into the first semester of the new curriculum, computational marketing strategy was the topic of the morning in the Business Implications stream. No wonder students responded with blank stares: They had not taken the Marketing 101 class that would provide a foundation for the more advanced approach. Professors quickly realized the students needed a brush-up and scheduled the missing piece. Students got a lesson on marketing basics and pressed on. "We're working on things as we go," concedes Gina C. O'Connor, an associate professor and director of the MBA program.

The kernel of the new curriculum was already embedded in the old MBA program, in a course called Design, Manufacturing, & Marketing (DMM). It integrated five different concepts (marketing, manufacturing, accounting, design, and operations) into one, and a tightly knit team taught it. The course also led students to coveted internships. In thinking about a new curriculum, it dawned on faculty and administrators that this framework could be adapted to a larger scale. "DMM worked so well that it made sense to use that format again," says Jeffrey Durgee, an associate professor and member of the development team.

The highly integrated approach requires a lot of cooperation, particularly among professors, who are far more used to competing with each other for status and resources. "Faculty members...typically don't play well together," Leifer says. But Rensselaer's professors have to check egos at the door to plan out courses from various points of view so the cross-pollination succeeds. "In working together, we have learned a lot about compromise," Phan says.

The students in the class of 2006 are also on a steep learning curve in the new program, offered for the first time last fall. Duncan Pickard, a first-year, was especially excited about the Business Implications of Emerging Technology stream, since he aspires to manage tech startups after graduating. But the first few weeks of class left him baffled. "I thought it was worthless," he says. Then, months later, while working on a final project with his team, Pickard had what he calls an "ah-ha moment," where everything came together. "I could finally see [the whole] picture," he says.

The real test will be whether Rensselaer's new take on the MBA appeals to companies looking to hire its grads. Keith A. Davey, vice-president of planning and development for Ford Motor (F) (China) Ltd., got involved with the Rensselaer program early on as one of a number of corporate advisers. "The Lally model represents an excellent first step" toward a badly needed radical transformation of the MBA, says Davey. Visits from companies looking to recruit first-year MBAs for summer 2005 internships were up twofold over last year. Recruiter Carrie Pazda at Gerber Scientific Inc. (GRB) was intrigued by the Radical Innovation stream, especially as it pertained to product innovation -- and signed up two summer interns.

Rensselaer may have started the trend, but other small MBA programs are looking for ways to remake curriculum, too. Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business, for one, has reduced its number of core courses so students can focus more on integrated electives like Internet marketing and investment analysis. Even that small shift has helped attract recruiters, says Kenneth B. Dunn, the school's dean. At University of California at Berkeley's Haas School of Business, acting dean Richard K. Lyons is working to set up research centers that will all but require professors from different disciplines to work together. "We're looking at the space between the fields," says Lyons, adding that the school will focus its centers on areas like behavioral decision-making and strategy. "[It's] in these interdisciplinary areas where B-schools can really make their mark, but it's very hard to do." Rensselaer seems to have cracked the code.

By Geoff Gloeckler in Troy, N.Y.


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