Business Schools

Courses that Crack the MBA Mold


Tired of cookie-cutter B-school curricula? Try parsing Napoleon's instinct or Gordon Gekko's ethics in four offbeat courses from NYU to INSEAD

Tired of those run-of-the-mill core courses? Some business school professors are breaking the mold of traditional business school offerings—and bringing lessons to students in ways you might never have imagined. Although students still have to take the usual quant-heavy requirements, they can also find electives that will transport them to a whole other world. Aspiring Master in Business Administration candidates signing up for these classes are doing everything from analyzing the behavior of film character Gordon Gekko to viewing a kidney transplant operation—all in the name of furthering their business education. Whoever said school was boring never saw these class descriptions:

Napoleon's Glance Based on Associate Professor William Duggan's book, Napoleon's Glance: The Secret of Strategy (Nation Books, 2002) about strategic intuition, thisColumbia Business School half-semester elective is designed to teach students how to brainstorm and plan well—in their careers and personal lives. "As you get older, you realize that you don't follow your dream, you follow opportunity," says Duggan. He hopes to give students the tools to do just that. For starters, in the MBA, executive MBA, and executive education versions of the course, Duggan teaches students that strategic intuition is more than ordinary intuition because it's based on knowledge of historical examples and firsthand experience brought together by a flash of insight.

The idea for the book and course comes from the evolution of the word "strategy," which first entered the English language in 1810, at the height of Napoleon Bonaparte's military success. It was at that time that Napoleon's enemies started to study his approaches to determine how he was successful, and strategy became part of the lexicon. Duggan has picked apart the strategies of Napoleon, and even of artists such as Pablo Picasso, to help students see how they too can use inspiration to be better leaders and have a better life. "Other courses teach the science of management," says Duggan. "This teaches the art of management." (see BusinessWeek.com, 7/3/06, "The Myth of Creativity").

Since 2005, the course has been attracting hundreds of students. Dave Lewis, a 2006 graduate of the MBA program, says "Napoleon's Glance" stretched his thinking and led him to his current job at ?What If!, a New York company that helps organizations find creative solutions to problems. "This course deals with how you come up with ideas and everything else we do at school is about how we can capitalize on those ideas," adds Lewis. Good thing, because you can't be a manager until you have something to manage.

The First 100 Days This mini-elective is one of the most popular courses taught at France's INSEAD. Since 2004 the course has had students taking the reins of a simulated company during its first 100 days in business. Before they can even sign up for the class, students have to form a team of four, with one student serving as chief executive, another as chief financial officer, and the other two heading operations and marketing and sales. There is a limit of 10 teams per session, and you can't drop out of the course once you have won a seat in the competitive bidding process.

But the class is not your usual B-school simulation, where students input information to a computer that spits out results that show whether they did things correctly. Professor Patrick Turner relies instead on friends—real accountants, journalists, and lawyers—and his own acting abilities to give students a taste of what acquiring a new business is like. Turner serves as chairman of the board for each team's company, and when students send e-mails to employees in various departments of their company—such as Lucy in accounting—they're actually corresponding with their professor. And Turner at times brings in actual lawyers, for instance when students have to make legal decisions about their business.

"The First 100 Days" is probably one of the only classes that requires that students bring in their cell phones—and always have them turned on. Lisa Long, who graduated from INSEAD in July, recalls a 4 a.m. phone call to say production at her fake company was offline. It was her job to wake up and make a decision about how to proceed. Grades are determined by the chairman of the board (Turner), your teammates, and the real people you encounter along the way. "It was like The Apprentice and Big Brother wrapped in one," says Brendan Collins, who also graduated from INSEAD in July. But students won't tell you too much more than that. They sign a nondisclosure agreement at the start of the session so that Turner can keep surprising future participants.

Transplant Administration Business students who want to enter the health-care sector after graduating don't need to be medical doctors. But they do have to understand how hospitals work and what medical professionals need to keep people alive. That is especially true for business students who want to join the growing ranks of transplant administrators, a job role that came into existence in the early 1990s after a national system for distributing organs for transplants was created. This fall, for the first time, three out of 40 health-care MBA students at the Owen Graduate School of Management at Vanderbilt University will be learning the ins and outs of the transplant business.

Essentially, these administrators are responsible for understanding enough of the clinical aspect of a specific type of organ transplant to oversee the business side of everything from organ donation to the purchase of new technology. Over the last 15 years, advances in the clinical aspects of transplanting organs, and the associated business goals, have created demand for transplant administrators at more than 250 transplant hospitals in the U.S., which usually have managers for every organ. These administrators can command six-figure salaries from the start if they have the right training, says Edward Zavala, who created the course and will be teaching it (see BusinessWeek.com, 8/10/06, "From Wharton to Intensive Care").

A veteran transplant administrator, Zavala says MBAs should consider this career path, especially if they are interested in health care and want to take on an entrepreneurial role. "You don't get into a rut covering transplants," he adds. "There is always a crisis of the day." The course will have students witnessing a live organ transplant and taking on a relevant internship. Students in this course won't be taking anything they learn for granted. After all, says Oliver Banks, a second-year student who is enrolled in the course, the decisions health-care MBAs make can mean the difference between life and death.

Managerial Ethics: Lessons from Literature and Film New York City is considered by many to be the center of entertainment, publishing, and business. Why not meld the three genres? That's exactly what Les Levi, adjunct professor in the market, ethics, and law program at the Leonard N. Stern School of Business at New York University, did when he created this course in 2003.

The former Columbia literature professor, who received his MBA in finance at Stern and is a hedge-fund manager with 20 years' experience on Wall Street, wanted to show business students that they could learn a thing or two from art—whether it is on the screen or in writing. "The idea is to let students see how literature and film connect with their experiences in real life," says Levi. Students read Shakespeare's Henry V to extract the importance of leadership; they consider ethical migration when viewing Oliver Stone's Wall Street, and contemplate scandal when watching the documentary Blue Vinyl about the effects of PVC, the world's most popular plastic, on people's health (see BusinessWeek.com, 5/25/05, "Bringing Shakespeare to B-School").

Don't assume this is just another fluff course. Students will tell you that it is one of the most important courses they have taken because it forces them to look outside of the B-school bubble. Angie Lee, who is scheduled to graduate from NYU's part-time MBA program in December 2006, says she never thought to look at business through the lens of books and movies before taking this course. "It's important to understand business as it is perceived and understood by society…you have to understand those who are not pro-business, too," she says. Certainly, the images of business in books and movies reflect the public's view. While the picture isn't always pretty, Levi and his students say, you still have to read and watch and learn.


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