Yale’s New MBA Curriculum: “Perspectives,” Not Functions

28 December 2006 at 10:51 am 5 comments

| Peter Klein |

Several wire stories and bloggers are reporting on Yale’s new first-year MBA curriculum. Increased study-abroad requirements are getting the most attention, but the reorganization of the core curriculum may be more significant. Says Yale:

In the last thirty years, while the management profession has changed significantly, management education has not. Most business school curricula remain compartmentalized by discipline — Marketing, Finance, Economics, and so forth. This model made sense when a successful career was characterized by vertical advancement in a single field within a large, functionally divided corporate bureaucracy. But today, managerial careers cross the boundaries of function, organization, and industry, as well as cultural and political borders. Even managers in large organizations must be entrepreneurial in the sense that their success depends on their ability to synthesize disparate information, analyze competing functional priorities, and draw together and coordinate resources and individuals in a context that is often fluid and decentralized.

Now, [Yale's School of Organization and Management] is breaking down traditional management disciplines just as contemporary organizations blur the distinctions among management functions. Rather than teaching management concepts in separate, single-subject courses like Finance or Marketing, Yale’s approach teaches management in an integrated way — the way in which most managers must function every day to achieve success.

The heart of the new first-year curriculum is a series of eight multidisciplinary courses, called Organizational Perspectives, that are structured around the organizational roles a manager must engage, motivate, and lead in order to solve problems — or make progress. These roles are both internal to the organization — the Innovator, the Operations Engine, the Employee, and Sourcing and Managing Funds (or CFO) — and external to the organization — the Investor, the Customer, the Competitor, and State and Society.

I find the concept intriguing, but am not so sure about the basic premise. Certainly, integration is a critical managerial skill. But integration works only if there is something to integrate. In principle, that’s what the second-year courses in strategic management are supposed to do — show students how to integrate their knowledge of finance, accounting, marketing, and business law (note to Yale: economics is not a functional area) to solve specific problems. Economic analysis can also serve as the glue binding the functional disciplines, just as a first-year economics course can complement the case method. As one of my own MBA syllabi states:

The case-study approach provides valuable information on the actual institutions that make up business organizations while exposing students to a variety of real business settings and problems. The drawback to this approach is that students are often left without a unifying perspective on the common characteristics of seemingly different problems, and without the ability to formulate general, as opposed to ad hoc, approaches to these problems. Economic theory provides such a unifying perspective.

In other words, cases are like bricks in a construction project. They are essential, but unless there is something to bind them together into a coherent whole, all you have is a pile of bricks. Economic theory provides the intellectual mortar necessary to combine the bricks into a useful structure.

The new courses at Yale may prove to be phenomenal. But I’m anxious to see how the core, disciplinary, tools and concepts will be worked into the various organizational “perspectives.” To put the problem differently, do multi-disciplinary courses work if not preceded by at least some, strictly disciplinary courses?

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Chihmao Hsieh  |  28 December 2006 at 12:39 pm

    Great post. Well, here at the University of Missouri – Rolla (UMR), the engineering-oriented campus of the University of Missouri system, we are doing precisely this.

    The School of Management & Information Systems at UMR is brand new, just 5 or so years old. Next month we are starting our very first MBA cohort ever. Until now, the only degrees offered here were BSBA and the MS in Info Systems. For this new MBA, we are developing an integrated curriculum very similar in spirit to Yale’s, with a similar distinction between the internal and external environment. While our vision here developed independently. our curriculum also is not functionally driven but made up of an integrated core. A main difference between our program here and Yale’s (besides the ones already obvious to all this blog’s readers) is that we require all applicants to already possess a BSBA (or similar degree). Which speaks to the point mentioned at the end of the original post.

    (Another difference is that a fair share of our integrated core is based on learning the SAP software package. This due to the fact that we are almost strictly an engineering school here at UMR.)

    I’m part of the MBA curriculum planning committee here, and let me share that this kind of integrated curriculum is extremely difficult to put together. It’s not just a matter of whether students have acquired concepts before. It’s also a matter of making sure that the faculty are all attaching similar meanings to the labels (e.g. terminology) that are used in this kind of integrated learning. Student learning is severely hampered if different faculty are using the same terms but in damagingly idiosyncratic ways.

    Of course, presumably this SHOULDN’T happen. We have pretty rigorously trained faculty here from pretty good schools. Our curriculum planning meetings have gone reasonably smoothly and not revealed the ‘dangers’ I’m describing, but some of us are still crossing our fingers.

    To qualify, I suppose any kind of interdisciplinary, integrated learning will run into the use of faculty who assign different meanings to the same labels. And to a certain extent, perhaps students could benefit from learning how to appreciate all the subtleties in meaning that one label might have. Hmm, is that a stretch?

    Furthermore, while I concede that I’m not particularly familiar with Yale’s plan, I’d be hopeful that Yale SOM doesn’t churn out managers who have learned such an effective yet idiosyncratic approach to management (e.g. concepts such as the ‘Operations Engine,’ and the distinction between the ‘Employee’ and the ‘Innovator’) that they aren’t able to mentor (or otherwise communicate with) their subordinates.

  • 2. Clopha Deshotel  |  29 December 2006 at 7:14 pm

    This is great to hear, that “Yale’s approach teaches management in an integrated way — the way in which most managers must function every day to achieve success.” I live 20 minutes away and plan to go look them in the eyes before I voice my thoughts. Case-study approach eh…?

  • 3. bee  |  31 December 2006 at 1:55 pm

    Great points … I must say that I do not appreciate the objective that Yale is articulating to achieve. I think integration can be much more effectively achieved in other ways.

    The idea of integration is the what Harvard and Darden are addressing with the case method. Integration occurs as students build their theory of management through the varied cases. On the other side, the Northwestern/Carnegie approach achieves integration through case and theory. Northwestern extended the logic by including the team approach to projects. Thus, students are expected to integrate not only facts and theory to a problem but also work through a team. The team approach is now well entrenched in most top MBA programs.

    Now I do not see what international does beyond potentially expanding the scope of the problem. I think the value is primarily for “spin” execution.

  • 4. Sten Burwall  |  5 January 2007 at 11:14 am

    Functional integration has since long been carried out in web courses from ProfitGames (www.profitgames.com).

  • 5. ABSOLOM NDUNA  |  24 January 2007 at 2:25 pm

    Functional intergration becomes more important when one’s success on te job is heavily depended on others. In a production scenarion one has to understand both finance and marketing otherwise the enterprise might collapse. Hence having a ‘broader minded’ management course is the way to go!

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