Re-Envisioning Undergraduate Business Education

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Wednesday, August 5, 2020
By Houston Peschl, Leighton Wilks
Photo by iStock
In a time of great future ambiguity, two professors called on the AACSB community to brainstorm possibilities for what a new business education can be.

As we all know, a major responsibility of business school faculty and administrators is to provide support through committee work. The Haskayne School of Business at the University of Calgary has begun a review of its bachelor’s in commerce, or BCom, with a strong team of passionate members trying to figure out how to move forward as a business school against a backdrop of massive uncertainty. Our students will be graduating into a very complex society and working for organizations that must continually evolve to survive. “Business as usual” is in the rearview mirror.

At the outset of our BCom review, we agreed it was important to avoid a situation of internal “group think” on our committee, and to engage with passionate people from other business schools. In this spirit, my colleague and I reached out to the AACSB community through its member discussion board. We posted a simple request to talk to a few peers about their thoughts on the possibilities for a re-envisioned business school and ideally gain some diverse perspectives. Very quickly, we had a significant response and interest to engage in this topic. By the end of the week, we had way too many people to talk to one-on-one, so we decided to host multiple workshops of 20 people. These three, 90-minute workshops filled up immediately.

Knowing that online teaching and facilitating is challenging at the best of times, we decided to truly test fate and also try a new software! We had previously been less than impressed by other whiteboarding software, such as Google’s Jamboard and Zoom’s Whiteboard. We took a chance on a new one that had come to our attention, called Miro. The platform has no cost for academics and has been thoroughly “beat up” by other organizations, so it has very few bugs. It is very user-friendly and rather intuitive to operate. Our approach was simple: we would use Zoom as the technology to talk to everyone, and we would also use Miro for brainstorming on the “boards,” where we had created five questions for the workshops:

  1. What are the top skills undergraduate business students should finish their degree with?
  2. What are the mandatory courses that all undergraduate business students should be required to take?
  3. What should the experience of an undergraduate business student include, outside of class time?
  4. How can a business school foster ethical business leaders in their BCom program?
  5. What is the future of business education and how can a BCom program really set itself apart from the competition?

Miro allowed for everyone to add their thoughts to virtual “sticky notes,” and, as facilitators, we paused after each question and opened a discussion with the participants. At the end of the three sessions, we left all the sticky notes on the whiteboard to help illuminate common themes among participant responses. For example, there were five or more sticky notes that said “ethics” under the required course question. Using this approach, we came up with a high-level framework to aid us in our review.

We were blown away by the level of intensity and experience among the participants. Here is a list of our major takeaways, based on our five workshop questions:

  • Question 1 asked about the skills undergraduates should have upon degree completion. Participants talked about the value of skills that we would call “managerial thinking,” like business analytics and media literacy. What was far more dominant was discussion of skills that we call “entrepreneurial thinking,” like having empathy, dealing with ambiguity, engaging in teamwork, and developing a lifelong learning mindset. Although the term “soft skills” was used to describe these skills, a peer stood up and challenged the term “soft,” which connotes a lack of rigor. On the contrary, the participant noted, these skills are incredibly difficult to teach and even more difficult to master. There may be an opportunity to develop a new way of referring to these skills to underline the importance of them in business education.

  • Question 2 explored the mandatory courses a business school should offer. Reflecting on the skills from question 1 that were focused on problem-solving, critical thinking, and dealing with ambiguity, the required courses that received a lot of weight were far more “standard” offerings, like accounting, marketing, finance, business analytics, and business strategy. As the possibilities were discussed, several participants commented that these more standard skills should be embedded into as many courses as possible. While our committee agreed with this idea, we also felt that this was the time for business institutions to be bold leaders in course development.

    At the Haskayne School of Business, we decided to offer a new course called Entrepreneurial Thinking for all second year BCom students. What is important to note here is that less than 5 percent of our students self-identify as entrepreneurial, based on a pre-course survey offered at the start of each semester that measures seven skills we’ve designated “entrepreneurial thinking” skills. Additionally, only 4 percent of our students are entrepreneurship majors. The majority are majoring in accounting and finance, as that is what our local industry requires. The goal of this new course is not to increase entrepreneurial intention but rather to provide students with the skills of thinking like an entrepreneur—skills like problem-solving, tolerating ambiguity, and cultivating empathy. We have developed a new signature pedagogy that, through our research data, we know is significantly improving these skills in our students.

  • Question 3 addressed the experience of a BCom degree outside the classroom, and participant responses really demonstrated to us that a BCom degree is far more than what is taught in course lessons. We must focus on the student experience and allow for community and leadership experiences to develop. This aspect of student preparation is what is most challenging in our current online learning environment, driven by the COVID-19 pandemic. When we talk to our students, they say they are most apprehensive about this area in terms of the future. The time limitations of the workshop did not allow the group to explore this topic in greater depth, but it does present an opportunity for future discussions.

  • Question 4 focused on developing ethical leaders. Out of all of the questions, this one showed the most consensus in the answers. Ethics must be approached from several dimensions and be part of the lifelong learning strategy. Through case competitions, guest speakers, and embedding ethics in multiple courses, business educators can help students develop a richer understanding of how to be an ethical leader. One comment that stood out to us was the idea that everyone in the faculty must model ethical behavior in their work as an instructor, researcher, or administration.

  • Question 5 looked at how a business school can create a unique value proposition over other business schools. Discussion prompted by this question was particularly interesting, as we technically were all “competitors.” Yet participants were very open and honest about how their schools attempt to differentiate in the marketplace. The comment that received the most mentions was one that pointed to the need for schools to provide students with practical lived experience and unique learning opportunities. Conversation also frequently returned to the idea that curriculum must promote a mindset for lifelong learning, and to the related use of microcredentials within institutions. The final takeaway was the necessity for interdisciplinary collaboration to provide a rich learning experience for students.

  • Finally, an additional key realization from the exercise was the benefit of belonging to a community of practice. The AACSB community is very powerful and, among its members, comprises a vast amount of knowledge and experience. A significant number of participants in the exercise were from senior leadership, including deans and teaching and learning specialists. We felt that this human capital could not be underestimated when it comes to building a strong future for business education. The debrief at the end of our sessions highlighted the shared value that not only the hosts but all participants gained from engaging in the discussions.

We want to thank AACSB for having such an active and engaging community of members, and we are excited to continue this dialogue with everyone in the future.

Houston Peschl
Instructor of Entrepreneurship, Innovation, and Sustainable Development, Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary
Leighton Wilks
Associate Dean, Teaching and Learning, Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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