The Fascinating Path Ahead for Business Schools
- Students who pursue business education often discover new passions and unexpected career possibilities that they might not have explored on their own.
- One approach that makes such transformation possible is interdisciplinarity, which teaches students to appreciate diverse perspectives and to combine hard and soft skills.
- Woodbury University’s School of Business has worked with schools across campus to create concentrations that include courses in the liberal arts, media and film, architecture, environmental science, and entrepreneurship.
In the ongoing discussion about business schools and their purpose, one question drives much debate: Should business school curricula and research direct corporate practices? Or should corporations dictate what business schools should study and teach?
Most of us in business education would agree that the relationship between academia and industry should be interdependent: Organizations compel business schools to improve business performance through their research and curricula, and business schools influence organizations by delivering responsible, innovative, and compassionate leaders who prioritize more than financial gains.
For their part, business schools serve organizations and society in multifaceted ways:
- They emphasize the importance of socially and morally responsible leadership.
- They teach students hard skills that will help them solidify an organization’s core competencies and soft skills that will help them support all stakeholders.
- They make sure students know the difference between managing and leading and can apply each in the proper contexts.
- They combine theory with practice, teaching skills that students can learn on the weekend and apply at work on Monday morning.
- They help students cultivate critical and creative thinking skills, so that students can discern opportunities behind the problems they encounter.
In short, business schools create environments for students that are nothing short of transformative.
Over the past decades, I have seen my school’s brightest alumni follow career paths they had not dreamed of prior to their business school journeys. What made this possible? As they immersed themselves in their educations, these individuals were empowered to examine their professional performance, reflect on their passions, and muster the courage to explore unconventional paths. As a result, they achieved goals they had not previously imagined.
I know of one student who quit her banking job to pursue her passion to create cosmetics; she subsequently developed a successful cosmetic and wellness line. Another student quit her job at the U.S. Internal Revenue Service to start a successful and gratifying nonprofit in sustainable food supply.
Yet another worked at a globally renowned marketing firm, where she discovered the concept of smart city takeovers. She started her own company based on this cost-effective, authentic marketing strategy that raises awareness about products or services through the endorsements of local community members rather than more expensive actors or influencers.
One may ponder whether these business school alumni might have eventually pursued these rewarding career paths without formal business education. Perhaps. But the fact remains that they explored different career options only after they attended business school, where they were able to acquire new insights and increase their confidence.
As I reflected on the experiences of these students, I realized that one aspect of business education might have been the factor that made their unexpected career shifts possible: interdisciplinarity. When students are exposed to a range of different concepts and perspectives that go beyond “business practices,” they discover fertile pathways that lead them to develop an elevated awareness of their true passions and aspirations.
For example, I am dean at Woodbury University’s School of Business in Burbank, California. At our school, it is not out of the ordinary for faculty to embed poetry, music, and philosophy into our courses. Throughout the curriculum, we encourage contemplative exercises and design morally responsible team-based projects. Here are just a few examples:
- As part of a leadership course, we posted poems on the wall and asked students to walk around the room and each select a favorite. They then sat in a circle, taking turns reading their poems aloud and explaining why that poem had resonated with them. This exercise brought different emotions to the surface, and it helped students develop a deeper level of mutual understanding and compassion.
- In an organizational behavior course, we invited students each to select a favorite song that held deep personal meaning, find the song on YouTube, and play part of it for the class. Next, they shared why the songs they chose were important to them, which helped them build camaraderie and form deeper bonds with one another.
- For an ongoing exercise in our business ethics course, students form teams, where they decide on a social cause they would like to support. Popular causes have included helping the homeless, caring for the elderly, caring for animals, and supporting sustainable neighborhood projects. The members of each team then identify an organization dedicated to the team’s chosen cause, establish contact, and volunteer their time and services. This project can be an eye-opener for students and sometimes even influences their career choices.
Our business school also engages in interdisciplinary practices through collaborations at multiple levels with its three sibling schools. For example, we created four new concentrations for our BBA-Management program in business analytics, entertainment, entrepreneurship, and sustainability (BEES). As a small school, we gratefully work with the majors in our sibling schools, which in turn offer courses that our students may consider.
Our alumni might have eventually pursued rewarding new career paths without formal business education, but the fact remains that they explored different career options only after they attended business school.
For example, in addition to taking relevant courses offered in the School of Business, students pursuing BEES concentrations can take courses in business analytics through the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS), as well as those in media and film through our School of Media, Culture & Design. They also can study in the Sustainable Practices program offered by our School of Architecture and the environmental science department (part of the CLAS). Students of all majors can take entrepreneurship courses in the School of Business.
Through the BEES concentrations, we want to eliminate any metaphorical blinders that might cause students to have a myopic view of business behaviors. For instance, many students come to business school hoping to become the next Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, or Larry Page. There’s nothing wrong with dreaming big, but once students are enrolled, we can encourage them to expand the focus of their dreams.
We want every student to understand that life rarely pans out the way we envision it. Across the curriculum, we regularly remind them that change is the only constant in this world, and that they should learn to embrace it. By exposing students to an interdisciplinary approach, we help them build resiliency and learn to perceive every experience, positive or negative, as a lesson that moves them toward their ultimate goals.
Championing Interdisciplinary Approaches
While many educators and business leaders applaud the interdisciplinary approach to education, it does present challenges. For instance:
- Faculty may feel that their areas of expertise are either being diluted or invaded by the infusion of other disciplines in the curriculum.
- AACSB accreditation has requirements regarding rigor and consistency, which can affect the degree of interdisciplinarity in a program.
- Not all students like the interdisciplinary approach. Business students, especially, often enter their programs with single-minded expectations and conventional views of business, so they may not welcome content based on the liberal arts.
The best way to address this is to give faculty ownership of the content and keep communication lines open. For example, while faculty members at Woodbury are informed of core aspects that they need to embed in their courses, they also are encouraged to explore unconventional (yet responsible) ways to accomplish their curricular goals.
Faculty at all four schools on campus cultivate a level of familiarity and comfort with each other by serving in cross-departmental committees and participating in faculty enrichment days. These interactions often result in collaborations, such as delivering guest lectures in each other’s classes, team-teaching courses, and even collectively developing course syllabi for new programs. Adversaries can be converted to champions by granting them an active role in the process, which may help them better understand its purpose and advantage.
Linking Hard and Soft Skills
In recent years I have learned that our most successful alums are those who most effectively combine the hard and soft skills they acquired in their business educations. They are the leaders who can simultaneously:
- Develop strong business plans and demonstrate respect and compassion for people from all walks of life in their daily operations.
- Read and interpret financial statements and view their life’s purpose and sense of fulfillment as independent of the size of their bank accounts.
- Network to establish lucrative business partnerships and explore collaborative ways to support the local community.
- Continuously innovate in their industries and remain mindful that no innovation should happen at the expense of the well-being of others.
To encourage students to develop their hard and soft skills, I plan to work with the deans and department chairs at our sibling schools to create stackable course clusters, or modules, in business and nonbusiness disciplines. Students will be able to stack these five- or six-course modules toward degrees, each granted by the program where they took the most modules.
Many students come to business school hoping to become the next Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, or Larry Page. Once students are enrolled, we can encourage them to expand the focus of their dreams.
In addition, they will earn a badge for each module they complete, which they can display to potential future employers while still pursuing their degrees. This badge system will provide students with instant rewards throughout their programs, further motivating them to learn.
Stackable modules open up more opportunities for students to study philosophy, psychology, communication, computer science, graphic design, and other areas. Such a curriculum will allow students to lean strongly into the interdisciplinary trend. It not only will encourage them to take more ownership of their educational journeys, but also will make it more likely for them to discover unexpected passions and pursue fulfilling future careers.
Expanding Boundaries, Embracing Change
As creatures of habit, we are generally averse to change. But no matter what we do, we cannot circumvent it. As living beings, our own bodies replace about 330 billion cells daily—we are not the same people today that we were yesterday or that we will be tomorrow. Nothing is the same as it was 10 or 15 years ago. The world is in continuous transition, and as the pace of change accelerates, businesses will need business schools to quickly adjust and adapt to trends.
Business, especially, is an immensely dynamic phenomenon. As one of the most influential forces in global human interaction, it has the capacity to drive either our collective flourishing or our dispersed downfall. But one thing is for certain, although their shape and format will inevitably change, businesses will continue to exist. That means that the purpose of business schools—preparing future business leaders—will be sustained.
But whether business has positive or negative impact rests largely on what business schools teach and how well future leaders are prepared to thrive amidst great change. Moreover, to ensure that business is a force for good in the world, business schools will need to embrace change themselves and expand their programs beyond their own boundaries.
That’s why I consider it immensely valuable that AACSB’s 2020 accreditation standards require business schools to identify and continue to cultivate their societal impact. The standards recognize that business educators now face a fascinating, unprecedented future, in which they hold the keys to training all students to become the compassionate, open-minded, and respectful leaders the world needs.
I believe interdisciplinary business education will be a key part of that future, in which we can ensure that our students ultimately effect transformative change in the world. By embracing such an approach in our classrooms, we will make it more likely that we educate leaders who are keen on doing the right thing—and who know that they will reap rewards in the least expected forms and from the least expected corners.