Innovator Article

New MBA Curriculum Designed to Prepare Innovative Leaders for Global IMPACT
Enhancements build on core strengths of values-based leadership, teamwork skills and turning ideas into action to solve strategic business issues

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In the aftermath of the global financial crisis and recession, calls for change at business schools have come from every corner. Employers say they want MBAs who are creative and collaborative, and who can step in as leaders their first day on the job. Students say they want to learn to think strategically, work in teams and tackle issues that affect real businesses. Society demands that business school graduates have grounding in social responsibility, accountability and ethics.

This fall, the UC Davis Graduate School of Management will roll out a new MBA curriculum that responds to these demands and goes beyond them. The curriculum renewal is the most sweeping in the School’s history.

“We’re building a bold business future for our students by developing one of the most innovative business school curricula in the world,” said Dean Steven Currall. “The enhancements reflect emerging trends in the business world and, at the same time, demonstrate our entrepreneurial drive to stay ahead of the curve in business education.”

Corporate Offices Become Classrooms

The strengthened curriculum is anchored by a new, two-part capstone course: Integrated Management Project, Articulation and Critical Thinking (IMPACT). The course is designed to sharpen students’ writing, speaking and critical-thinking abilities and then put those collective business skills and knowledge to work on 20-week team projects for client companies. Teams of five students will work on a live project with oversight from a faculty instructor and access to a team coach.

“The corporate offices of multinational Fortune 500 firms and the ultra-fast-paced environments at Silicon Valley start-ups will become classrooms for our Full-Time MBA students,” said James Stevens, assistant dean of student affairs. “IMPACT will unleash teams of talented UC Davis MBA students to tackle challenging business issues and develop innovative solutions for leading companies in the Sacramento–San Francisco Bay Area corridor.”

Currall emphasized that the team projects will be organized around industry sectors directly connected to UC Davis’ research strengths and location, including clean technology and energy; information technology; healthcare delivery; foods, nutrition and agribusiness; telemedicine; service sectors such as finance and consulting; and the intersection of human and animal medicine.

“No other business school in the world offers the breadth of opportunities for MBA students to work on compelling, hands-on projects for leading companies in the key sectors that intersect with UC Davis’ world-leading research and position as one of the nation’s top-10 public universities,” Currall said.

Before tackling the Integrated Management Project (IMP), students in their first quarter will take Articulation and Critical Thinking (ACT), which will examine issues of ethics and leadership. The critical thinking addition will be taught in classes of about 30. Students will be presented with different approaches to solving problems.

“We’ll have students look at how to frame information,” Stevens said. “An example might be, ‘Should Google be in China?’ There’s no clear right or wrong answer. So what should you be considering? What factors should you look at?”

In addition to the IMPACT course, the core curriculum will include a restructured operations course, Managing for Operational Excellence, that will explore operations in manufacturing and service sectors from both inside and outside a company.

Also starting this fall, all entering UC Davis MBA students will complete an online math assessment. “This ensures that students from diverse, academic backgrounds will be well-prepared for success in all of our courses,” Stevens said.

While taking the School in new directions, the revised curriculum will reinforce the Graduate School of Management’s greatest strengths and its hallmarks: a close-knit learning environment, small class sizes and the fundamentals of business, ranging from accounting and finance to marketing, organizational behavior and strategy.

The changes we’ve made are building on a program that already was delivering a solid MBA education,” said finance Professor Brad Barber, who co-chaired the task force that crafted the plan. “But we can’t afford to stand pat and expect to stay competitive with the best business schools. We need to continue assessing our program, top to bottom, and offer a distinctive MBA experience that only UC Davis can deliver. –Brad Barber

In recent years, change has been in the air at business schools everywhere, as institutions try to adapt to a new business environment. The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business International (AACSB), the leading business school accreditation body, has encouraged innovative curriculum changes. The Graduate School of Management drew upon AACSB resources in developing a curriculum renewal strategy.

Other leading schools such as Harvard, Wharton and UC Berkeley have also revamped their curricula,” said Dan LeClair, senior vice president and chief knowledge officer at AACSB International. “As exemplified by UC Davis, these exciting changes are motivated and guided by distinctive business school missions, contexts and competencies. I’m especially thrilled about UC Davis’ efforts to link with scientific research expertise across the campus. –Dan Leclair

Leadership and Career Accelerator

In tandem with the new curriculum, students will receive enhanced leadership and career development training that emphasizes self-evaluation to improve leadership skills and chart a career path.

The approach formalizes and expands the School’s Lam Research Leadership Skills Program, a series of workshops and seminars led by industry experts and patterned after similar programs for senior executives at the world’s top companies. The two-year skills and training program emphasizes responsible business practices and will provide professional coaching and feedback. Students also will build on a 360-degree leadership evaluation to prepare a personal leadership development plan.

With so much basic business knowledge available today at the push of a button, the practical projects and the new approach to the care issues of critical thinking and communication are exactly what are needed. –James Kelly

“Coupled with the curriculum renewal, this more structured leadership and career development program will better prepare our students for immediate post-MBA success and help them more clearly understand what’s needed to be successful in business—and in a way that serves the greater good,” said Stevens, who served on the curriculum task force.

The School’s curriculum review was accomplished in about 10 months. Currall appointed a special task force—that included administrators, faculty, business leaders, alumni and students—to design the new curriculum in a process that began in the spring of 2010 and ended in late fall. The faculty reviewed and overwhelmingly approved the plan in January.

Robert Vizza, head of business development for San Rafael, Calif.–based Autodesk, a leader in 3-D design software, who served on the task force, said the addition of the required project-based course will be instrumental in preparing UC Davis MBAs. The course draws on the success of the existing MBA Consulting Center elective projects, and doubles the length of the company engagements.

“There’s much more to business than a case study can relay,” said Vizza. “Politics, emotions and personalities all play pivotal roles in shaping an effective business strategy that achieves desired results. This course will provide all UC Davis MBA with exposure to these subtle, yet critical, business elements.”

Fellow task force member Joseph DiNunzio, president of the consulting firm Fido Management and a visiting professor at the School, also welcomed this approach. “As a consultant most of my career, I was a firm advocate for this as a way to put ideas into action,” he said.

Surveys of students showed strong support for more hands-on experiences. Alumnus James Kelly ’10, a task force member, said students want to learn outside of the classroom in non-traditional ways.

“With so much basic business knowledge available today at the push of a button, the practical projects and the new approach to the core issues of critical thinking and communication are exactly what are needed,” Kelly said, explaining that students are looking for opportunities to put their skills to work and make a difference.

Task force member and alumnus Scott Scaramastro ’97, an executive with the scientific measurement company Agilent Technologies, said adding the retooled operations course to the core curriculum responds to corporate recruiters’ emphasis on candidates with exposure to manufacturing and global operations management.

“In the annual surveys of employers, they were telling us, ‘We love your students for many reasons, but these are a couple things we’d like to see more of,’” Scaramastro said.

The financial crisis, which caused much soul-searching in business schools worldwide, didn’t prompt the GSM’s initiative, but lessons learned from the near meltdown did help to shape the new curriculum, task force members said.

“We have a new dean and a new building, and it was time to look at our course model,” Barber said. “This sort of assessment is important to do even if you’re getting things right.”

Kelly began the MBA program in the fall of 2008, just as the global financial crisis unfolded. “After two years of absorbing that, by the time the task force first met—and I expect it was true for everyone around the table—it was impossible to say where the influence of the crisis began and left off,” he said.

Roll Out Begins This Fall

The new additions to the core curriculum, Articulation and Critical Thinking and Managing for Operational Excellence courses, will debut this fall. The two-quarter Integrated Management Project course will premiere in fall 2012.

“There is an enormous amount of work involved in setting this up,” said task force member Hemant Bhargava, associate dean and professor of management and computer science. “We’ll be strengthening our current relationships and building new bridges with companies that can offer compelling projects for our students. We are fortunate that we have more than a year’s lead time.”

A new director will manage the projects, and a faculty member will oversee them, explained Bhargava. “We are all looking forward to getting this off the ground.”

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