There’s been quite a bit of press recently questioning the benefits of a business education for those who want to start their own businesses. For instance, in an article titled “You Could Get There Faster Without An MBA” in the Business Insider, author Jay Bhatti says that the cost and the time commitments for getting an MBA make the degree less valuable than just jumping right in and innovating.
The Stanford Graduate School of Business recently announced that, with a $150 million donation, it will launch a new institute that will help alleviate poverty. Called the “Institute for Innovation in Developing Economies,” its aim is to develop research that can help business leaders innovate products and services that will build infrastructure and economic growth, which, according to the school’s website, will help relieve poverty in developing countries.
While relieving poverty may seem like a lofty goal, it might also be based on good business sense. Globalization and increased economic activity in developing countries have created and expanded markets for international business in ways that will play out for years to come. For example, a recent population report released by Goldman Sachs speculated that, because of explosive growth and continuing development in China, the Chinese middle class may be four times as large as America’s by 2030, and will undoubtedly represent a huge business market. It would be logical to assume that efforts to minimize or alleviate poverty elsewhere could generate a whole new class of consumers and associated business opportunities.
The Aspen Institute’s recently updated Beyond Grey Pinstripes, the list of top 100 top socially- and environmentally- conscious MBA programs, has generated a lot of interest in how business schools are (or are not) developing curriculum that will foster socially sustainable thinking. Fast Company recently interviewed Judy Samuelson, Aspen’s director of business and society, who said that, while b-schools are providing a more ethical and socially-conscious framework for students, in general, they’re still not leading. That may be true, but if anything, Beyond Grey Pinstripes shows that many business schools are starting to take the ideas of corporate social responsibility (CSR) seriously, and that many students are being exposed to this thinking throughout their MBA programs.
So, is this kind of thinking rubbing off on students?
A glance at some recent projects and startups created by MBA students and recent graduates shows that this new type of thinking is indeed having a positive effect, and may be influencing a new breed of businesses that are, through innovation and the adoption of traditional business principles, tackling social and environmental problems.
If you’ve been looking for MBA programs, you might have come across the phrase “design thinking.” So, what exactly is this, and what does it mean?
Briefly, in terms of business, design thinking is a way of solving problems through the lens of design: using methodologies and strategies to see those problems in terms of an integrated system, and then finding solutions that make sense in terms of the larger system. Typically, design thinking is a human-centered approach, which means that by using insights into psychology and the social science, practitioners can develop solutions that meet the needs of people.
Design thinking generally goes hand-in-hand with MBA programs that are strong in innovation and entrepreneurship. It makes sense, really – if you want to create new, innovative products, you will need to think about design (and how consumers will use the products) from the very beginning. Honing this approach is one of the reasons why California College of the Arts’ MBA in Design Strategy is popular with entrepreneurial-driven students.
CCA’s program, along with those at other b-schools – including Stanford, Insead, and the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto – show a widening adoption of design thinking and strategies into traditional business curriculum. By integrating design thinking, these programs tout an integrative, human-centered (and often multidisciplinary) approach to the traditionally by-the-numbers nature of business. Rotman’s website points out some of the core philosophies behind its program:
Whether the goal is to develop new products or services, create new ways of marketing to customers or reinvent an entire business model, ‘design thinking’ helps get bigger ideas, faster and more efficiently. We believe the mindset and methods behind great design are the same ingredients for successful Business Design. By incorporating the ‘design experience’ into our curriculum, we offer students a unique and valuable opportunity to learn new ways to tackle complex challenges in deeper and more holistic ways.
However, some observers aren’t sold on the benefits of design thinking, and believe that it means little more than adding a new coat of paint to an old product. Peter Merholz, in a post titled “Why Design Thinking Can’t Save You” on Hass Business Review’s Blog, calls recent media attention to design thinking “fetishistic,” and says that:
“Design thinking is trotted out as a salve for businesses who need help with innovation. The idea is that the left-brained, MBA-trained, spreadsheet-driven crowd has squeezed all the value they can out of their methods. To fix things, all you need to do is apply some right-brained turtleneck-wearing ‘creatives,’ ‘ideating’ tons of concepts and creating new opportunities for value out of whole cloth.”
Indeed, the turtleneck-wearing creative crowd sometimes gets a bad rap, because many assume that design is only concerned with outward aesthetics. In a TED talk, author Tim Brown (whose book “Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation” is required reading in some design-oriented MBA programs,) says that when designers (possibly while wearing turtlenecks) create new designs that simply repackage existing products, they are thinking small. He posits that design thinking should be much more than just reskinning a product – in fact, by thinking big and perceiving problems through a human-centered and design-oriented paradigm, we can solve some of our most pressing challenges, including climate change and access to healthcare.
Of course, these challenges require more than just a new coat of paint.
If you’re interested in learning more about design thinking, It’s definitely worth checking out Tim Brown’s TED talk:
From her vantage point in Milan, Paola Cillo at SDA Bocconi sees marketing as increasingly tied to innovation.
What do you think makes a strong marketing program?
Strong and leading-edge research is a necessary condition to make a program strong. Yet, it is also very relevant to integrate good and rigorous research with strong managerial practice. This is the reason why in our program, we work closely with companies and integrate case studies into our courses. I think the bridge between the scientific approach and more managerial action is critical to have a good MBA program, not just for marketing, but for other fields, as well.
I think in some MBA programs this might be missing, because many people that teach either come from companies or are completely focused on academic research. I think it is very important to have a faculty that is very active in research, but I wouldn’t say that a very strong faculty automatically means that your MBA is strong. They have to be able to share their knowledge with students. We have tried to reach a good balance between these two aspects.
How is marketing changing these days?
Marketing is changing in the sense that the word marketing is more and more associated with the word innovation. What we are trying to do in our courses is to explore how to take an innovative approach to marketing – a new way of communicating with consumers and collaborating with consumers.
And the other side is the technology, which is not just an enabler of this interaction, but also shapes the way that some marketing processes are applied. That means, generally speaking, all of the CRM (customer relations management). This is the way we are trying to grapple with this evolution of marketing. Our electives in marketing are very much focused on innovation, and we have courses focusing on how technologies can enhance marketing performance of companies, and how they – especially the Internet – can shape how companies interact with their customers.
Though, I have to say that the basic approach to marketing – how companies actually consider marketing – hasn’t changed that much. What is changing is actually the opportunities that they have to put this general approach into practice. What we try to use different cases and examples to show what it means to do marketing in today’s context.
More business schools are adding design to their curricula, but only a couple programs cater to designers and creatives. We spoke with Nathan Shedroff, chair of the new Design Strategy MBA program at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco, about what people working in the creative industries can get from doing an MBA.
Where do your students come from?
Around 70 percent of the students have a design background; that might be fashion, graphic design, interaction design, industrial design, or maybe a little architecture. The rest have a non-design background but all have an affinity for design. They might work for companies in non-design capacities but these companies use design strategically or are design-aware.
For someone in your program without a design background, will they learn design as well as business?
They will definitely learn more about design as they go through the program, but we aren’t a design program, and we don’t actually teach design skills in the traditional sense. There’s nothing about color, type, layout, etc. We often talk about those issues in classes, but they aren’t learning those design skills. Instead, they learn strategic design skills: design research, design thinking, managing design, managing companies, etc.
The first year of your MBA program has only just begun, but where do you expect your grads will end up?
We expect they’ll end up in one of three places, depending on what they’re interested and what the economy is like. We expect a small percentage of students will start their own companies, probably based on whatever their thesis is. That’s not for another 16 months, so it’s hard to gauge.
We think the bulk of our students will end up at the design-related consultancies that do strategic design. And they’re crying out for people to bridge the gap between design innovation and business. A big part of it is helping clients understand what the process is, and what needs to be done, and to be comfortable with it. And then there are the skills of managing innovation. Consultancies are searching desperately for these people. Not only is it hard to find people with this experience, but strategic work is much more profitable for them, as well.
Plus, much of the traditional design work is moving over to China at the moment. Graphic design not as much yet, but product design and industrial design is moving over to China rapidly. Interaction design is starting to follow, as well.