Flexible Business

Flexible Business Education Models Allow for Disruption

If personal attributes are what our students need to learn, practice, and possess to be successful in the workplace, then how can we reframe our education models to support them?

Disruption is rapidly occurring in the higher education marketplace. Over the past year, I have fervently sought to understand how our business education models can assure excellence, while also being flexible enough to respond to disruptions with agility. It is now critical that we solve this issue.

A recent panel of employers who hire our students at Santa Clara University indicated that, in order to be prepared for jobs of the future, students must be adaptable, curious, and better prepared to work in interdisciplinary teams of scientists, engineers, artists, and businesspeople. Current workers need to be comfortable coming together in teams, executing on a project, disbanding, and then starting over again with a different team on a different project.

This means workers also need to be collaborative, possess excellent interpersonal skills, exhibit empathy, and value and embrace diversity and inclusion. Further, the panel revealed, workers will need to have a growth mindset; they’ll need to be willing to take risks; and they’ll need to be excellent at interpreting and incorporating constructive feedback.

After reviewing the panel's results, it was not hard to see that virtually all of these attributes were personal characteristics and not discipline-specific proficiencies. While it is true some of these qualities may be incorporated into various discipline-specific business classes, generally business schools do not provide separate classes on empathy, collaboration, and developing a growth mindset.

Most of us would agree that, to be successful today, students need to develop these traits more than ever before. They also need to understand and use mindfulness and exhibit emotional intelligence. Machine learning, neuroscience, analytics, and a host of other topics are also now essential for businesspeople to embrace.

Recognizing these needs leads to the fundamental question about what modern business education should look like. The current AACSB criteria for determining whether someone is receiving a business degree is explained as follows:

Normally, bachelor degree programs, in which 25 percent or more of the teaching relates to traditional business subjects, or graduate programs, in which 50 percent or more of the teaching relates to traditional business subjects, are considered business degree programs. Traditional business subjects include accounting, business law, decision sciences, economics, entrepreneurship, finance (including insurance, real estate, and banking), human resources, international business, management, management information systems, management science, marketing, operations management, organizational behavior, organizational development, strategic management, supply chain management (including transportation and logistics), and technology management.

This standard applies to business schools worldwide, and our usual business curriculum is basically the same globally. It is primarily discipline-based and taught in “classes/courses.” And, as we all know too well, when curriculum revisions are suggested or occur, there can be extreme resistance to “touching or changing the core.”

However, it really is not necessary to teach the core discipline subject matter in traditional course-based ways. For example, subject matter information could be introduced to students in small bits and could be viewed as a lesson on YouTube or another video hosting site. Search the internet for “how to read a financial statement” and you will find dozens of videos explaining it. Much, if not most, of our core business discipline information is already online and is probably being used by our students. According to product review site MerchDope, 1,300,000,000 people have used YouTube, 300 hours of video are uploaded every minute, almost 5 billion videos are watched each day, and 80 percent of individuals 18 to 49 years old watch YouTube.

With this much information readily available, is it really necessary for us to spend our precious time for education adding more content?

This reality opens many opportunities to experiment with other models of business education. If we agree that personal attributes are what our students need to learn, practice, and possess, then how should we frame our education models? It would seem that an entire curriculum full of 50-minute discipline-specific courses offered three times a week and confined to business school curriculum is no longer useful.

I propose that we spend our “instruction” time in knowledge transfer and learning experiences. Faculty would be coaches, in addition to subject matter experts. In order to ensure that students are comfortable with change, there should be no standard way for them to experience learning or practice what they learn. As one suggestion, schools could offer semesterlong classes with students working in universitywide teams on specific problems, or they could have one project each semester of their senior year. These projects would be generated by actual businesses that have data that needs to be analyzed and projects that need to be completed.

To experience and learn from feedback, student team members could be evaluated using a 360-degree survey method. Grading would reflect the amount of risk a team took rather than the final result created, or the team could be graded based on how resilient it was when it failed. Some of these activities already occur, but in most schools they are confined to extracurricular activities or to graduate education.

Many faculty across the world are currently experimenting with innovative experiential learning. Their best practices should be highlighted for other institutions to learn from and be inspired by. For example, using interdisciplinary cases could help facilitate knowledge transfer. One of my colleagues has suggested that law, strategy, and sustainability be taught together using relevant and current business cases.

Other forms of experiential education could occur using role-playing, storytelling, dramatic experiences, document drafting for corporate presentations, and a host of other methods. We can borrow from our higher education colleagues who use laboratories, design projects, portfolios, juried exhibitions, moot court practices, clinics, and residencies to transfer knowledge and provide opportunities for practice. These are just a few suggestions of the many ways for us to enhance learning.

What is clear, however, is that student classroom time can no longer be viewed as the standard for education. Also evident is that our definition of what it means to receive a “business degree” is no longer viable. Our reconceived accreditation standards need to have significant room for student learning experimentation, and our universities must embrace changing business education models to create outstanding, sustainable, agile education in this disruptive world.


Caryn L. Beck-DudleyCaryn Beck-Dudley is dean of the Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University in California and chair of the 2018–19 AACSB Board of Directors. Follow her on Twitter @BeckDudley.