Designed to Connect

Roy Wiggins

Professor Roy (Chip) Wiggins III is Dean of Business and the GraduateSchool of Business, Bentley University.

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    Michael Page

    Michael John Page is Professor of Finance and Management and past Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, Bentley University, Boston, US.

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      Michael Page and Roy Wiggins describe an innovative MBA programme aimed at answering the criticisms that have been made of the degree.

      In their book Rethinking the MBA: Business Education at a Crossroads the authors argue that the MBA required to develop the leaders and entrepreneurs our societies need, involves a far stronger focus on knowing, doing and being.

      These are components fully embedded in Bentley University’s 11-month MBA launched in 2010.

      The programme was designed to develop three crucial characteristics of leadership articulated by Hansen (2011) – the ability to understand people; the ability to see the big picture; and the ability to execute.

      It does this through a curriculum, learning environment and international experiences that ensure:

      • analytical components do not swamp time required to examine behavioural dimensions
      • integrative methodologies rather than silo approaches are used to develop knowledge elements
      • experiential elements develop execution capabilities rather than just strategic formulation abilit

      In 2007 Gloria Larson, Bentley’s seventh president, continued Bentley’s long-standing reputation for curricula innovation when she asked the university to establish a transformative MBA that would achieve three key goals:

      • it should address the criticisms being expressed increasingly about the relevance of the degree and its culpability for lapses of ethics apparent across businesses globally
      • it should capitalise on Bentley’s positioning in accounting and finance, business ethics, information technology, and the fusion of business with arts and sciences
      • consideration should be given to designing a programme with significant appeal for a wider range of talented individuals, including those with all the capabilities needed to succeed as leaders but for whom the traditional MBA may have limited appealThe highly competitive management education landscape and Bentley University’s location among some of the most recognised and envied MBA programmes in the world made this a demanding call to action.

      However, the call was answered by bringing together faculty from across the university – business and arts and sciences – and through seeking counsel from corporate connections and management education industry experts.

      The eclectic group that developed the programme remains fully involved. Todays’ students still find themselves engaging with faculty and executives from diverse fields and backgrounds.

      Programme design

      The MBA programme was constructed around four integrating themes – innovation, value, environments and leadership – and three fieldbased immersion experiences – one in the US and two outside.

      Each theme was designed to ensure that connections are made between self, others, context, thought and action.

      Finally, the mandate given to the programme design team emphasised that the learning environment should be collaborative, highly interactive and built on the business experiences of a class of students averaging over seven years of post-tertiary education experience.

      The design team determined the programme’s core learning objective to be preparing leaders capable of functioning effectively in times of rapid change, accelerated innovation, intense globalisation and profound demographic shifts.

      By the end of the programme, graduates should have the capacity to identify and evaluate trends relatively quickly, adapt to different cultures, and craft creative approaches to stakeholders, products, services and social contexts.

      The learning environment was also built from scratch.

      Unlike traditional classrooms or horseshoeshaped case-teaching classrooms, Bentley’s MBA Studio mirrors the layout historically employed by architecture and design students.

      Students sit at technology enabled team tables that are all connected to broader smart boards to maximise the interaction within small teams and among the entire class cohort. This ensures that faculty operate as facilitators rather than instructors.

      Each student becomes a dynamic contributor to the discussion – standing up to debate with classmates, illustrating points on multimedia boards and continually engaging their smaller team to share perspectives based on collective experiences.

      A comfortable lounge seating area and a kitchenette within the studio dedicated for the class 24 hours a day makes it the perfect location for delving deeper into the relevant issues and ideas after the more formal sessions.

      Students also work informally with faculty in the studio – as colleagues and mentors – and use the space to prepare for the two-week field-based collaborations that follow the innovation, value and environments themes.

      Thematic structure of the programme

      The Bentley MBA is totally thematic in its  design. Traditional core material is embedded  within each of the four themes that span the  entire degree. These subjects are strengthened  and debated at the points where the material  – whether accounting, finance, marketing or  whatever – is most relevant to the thematic  element under investigation.

      Furthermore, the glue that binds the themes  and the foundation/discipline material is  connections. As stated above, all four themes are  examined and developed in the minds of the  students with reference to self, others, context,  thought and action.

      • The Innovation Theme During the first  quarter of the programme students develop  an appreciation of the value of innovation and  creativity and devise new models for the role of  business in society. They gain insight into how  leaders must understand the environments in  which they operate and how they need to act  if they wish to build organisations where  creativity can thrive and innovation follows.Topics covered include: the psychology of  innovation and how humans process information  and generate creative ideas; theories of creativity  and the conditions needed to sustain creative  environments; design lifecycle; and how to  develop and renew innovation through action that  capitalises its necessary relationship to strategy.
      • The Value Theme Students develop a  fuller understanding of value and its impact  on business. Although value is at the heart  of every business strategy, its meaning is  both complex and subjective.Appreciating how different interpretations and  assessments of value can influence decisions, the  theme is designed to ensure delegates: reflect on  what value means and appreciate how meanings  vary among different stakeholders; understand  how organisations derive value and align  processes and resources to help build it; learn  about different ways value is generated; and  develop measurement tools and analytical skills  necessary to derive sources of value as well as  sustain them.The functional disciplines that constitute the  core of most MBA programmes are embedded  in the value theme in a manner that achieves  the interdisciplinary appreciation often said to be  lacking in traditional MBA programmes that rely  on a capstone strategy course to achieve this level  of multi-lens thinking.
      • The Environments Theme Recognising that  organisations and managers do not operate  in isolation, students are exposed sequentially  to the wider setting of the firm, community,  country and world when making decisions.  Environments examined include: social  contexts and how they are formed and sustained within and across organisations, countries  and world; economic, including how to gauge  the stability of the overall macroeconomic  environment, and how market structures  prevalent in an industry can affect the likelihood  of innovation and adoption of new technologies;  and the radical impact of technology and  networks on organisations and how they  control themselves and their value chains.
      • The Leadership Theme During the culminating theme of the programme, students further integrate what they have learned and turn inwards to reflect upon their own leadership styles and to track their personal development. Their capabilities for communicating credibly with different groups to earn their trust is further enhanced during the theme. The nature of leadership, the extent to which it can be taught, the role of emotional intelligence, and the range of challenges leaders confront are explored. Faculty members and leadership experts serve as guides and mentors while students reflect on their preferred leadership styles, skills and capabilities as well as strengths and weaknesses. Regular reflection on their experiences are designed to facilitate their development as ethical and strategic leaders.The theme also challenges them to examine the technical aspects of decision making amid uncertainty and when stakeholder engagement is present. Emphasis is placed on understanding agency theory and the dynamics of considering asymmetrical information, IT and strategy, and creating an effective control environment.

      Field-based collaborative experiences

      Twelve-day field experiences follow each of the first three themes. Students join faculty and members of organisations at host sites to explore complex business topics that are designed to evolve out of the completed theme and introduce topics that are then covered in the subsequent theme.

      The experiences provide an essential component of the “real-world” immersion built into the overall programme design and Bentley faculty members’ roles are oriented to ensuring students apply key lessons and concepts gleaned from previous themes. Each field-based collaborative experience involves multiple stakeholder groups or organisations and focuses on issues relevant to all business sectors. Students are not working to solve a problem but to address an issue—generally one for which an actionable solution does not readily exist. Last year, for example, students learned how a variety of consumer-oriented Greek businesses have adapted their strategies for survival in a post financial crisis world, departing Athens on the eve of the recent elections that brought the Syriza party into power.

      The goals of each immersion experience are to emphasise the proper approach for evaluating persistent issues and to illuminate the skills and limitations experienced by competent leaders in such circumstances.

      International immersion experiences over the first four iterations of the programme have involved visits to Chile, France, Ghana, Greece, South Africa and Turkey.

      Conclusion

      Thus far, Bentley has recruited four cohorts and 90 students into the programme. While the intakes have yet to grow to the desired capacity (the dedicated MBA Studio has been designed deliberately for a maximum of 36 students sitting around six technology enabled team tables), successes have been significant.

      Seventy-three per cent of the students come onto the programme directly from overseas, 42% are women and the average work experience of each class is around 10 years. The diversity of backgrounds is also significant – on entry into the programme over half already have one or more advanced degrees with 10% having PhDs. Several have been Fulbright scholars.

      Career paths of entering students include academia, consulting, entrepreneurship, family business, financial markets, military, religion and theatre. Feedback from the students and employers has been extremely positive with one graduate making a five-figure gift to the university within four months of graduating.

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