Sunday, March 29, 2009

Innovation, Creativity & MBAs

"If you are not prepared to be wrong you will never come up with anything original." Sir Kenneth Robinson (TED 2006).

I had the privilege of hearing Robinson talk at the NCIIA conference in 2008, and he is a great champion of the need to overhaul our educational system.

It's not a bad system, for what it is. In fact, if you wanted to study organizations that are really "Built to Last" you might want to study universities. Some have been around for close to a thousand years! But don't confuse durability with innovation. The nature of the university beast is slow change. Discussion. Consensus. Tenure. There is no real incentive for rapid change. And it is important to be "right" (well, not politically).

It's a shame. Because the university's role is to train the next generation. As Sir Kenneth points out, they do a good job of training the next generation of faculty members, but not the next generation of innovators. It seems to take decades to start new departments, disciplines or degrees, and yet today's fast moving world demands more creative and interdisciplinary people, with skills in team work and cross cultural collaboration.

Universities have survived other crises, and most will survive the current one. But they don't lead society out of crises, and, in fact, may perpetuate the thinking that leads to these crises. Some are wondering if it is time to significantly change MBA programs. I'd add that the founders of America's tech companies did not have MBAs (Gates, Jobs, Brin, Page, etc.).

Robinson talks about 3 leverage points for changing education: curriculum, pedagogy (a term thrown about on campuses but nowhere else) and assessment. These are, to a large extent, controlled by faculty. So I am will not hold my breath for any big changes from the "top" MBA schools. They will continue doing what they are doing.

The changes on these 3 points may come from elsewhere. Clayton Christensen has pointed out that many disruptive innovations come from non-traditional competitors, and has discussed the impact of community colleges on higher education in recent articles. Often disruptive innovations are offered to less valued customers and are perceived as "good enough." A few trends that may be harbingers of MBA disruption: online programs (criticized by many faculty as lacking rigor), foreign students opting for international, rather than come to US schools (who started many of our Silicon Valley start ups?), the growth of partnerships between international schools, and schools such as Bainbridge and Presidio with their sustainability focus. All are trying new approaches to curricula, pedagogy and assessment. While some are seeking just to join the upper tiers, others are trying to reshape the way business is taught, and to make it accessible to more students. Seth Godin has started a free "alternative" MBA.

As with many institutions that are disrupted, the American universities and their business schools may never see it coming. If the recruiters and donors return, many deans will stop wringing their hands. But as business schools trim their budgets in light of endowment drops and state funding cuts, they would do well to remember that now would be a good time to invest in new approaches, rather than perpetuating past practices. I am not sure the planet, our society or our communities can take much more Business As Usual.

No comments: