Bringing Technology and Design to an MBA Near You

Central Saint Martins for design thinking

It feels like more has been written about the role of business schools in fostering entrepreneurship than practically any other subject in the management education arena in recent years. Acknowledging that no institution, no matter how brilliant its academics may be, can create entrepreneurs out of the student equivalent of thin air, schools have moved their emphasis to helping budding business owners turn ideas into commercial realities through alumni networks, access to potential investors, and the almost ubiquitous incubator.

If you take a long, hard look at the most exciting new product or service ideas of recent years, however, they haven’t come from the usual suspects of MBA classrooms—bankers, accountants, consultants, and the like—but from scientists, engineers, and designers.

So, given that the real strength of business schools seems to lie in developing ideas rather than coming up with them, shouldn’t more schools be reaching out to their counterparts teaching in hard science, engineering, and the arts?

Of course, some of this is going on already. The MIT Sloan School of Management works well with the engineering and science faculties of its parent university—so well, in fact, that the companies its alumni have gone on to found have generated more than $15 billion in revenue during the past two decades. Cornell’s Johnson School in upstate New York and Stanford’s university and business school both have similarly impressive records of cross-discipline cooperation and commercial success.

Perhaps somewhat embarrassingly for the home of business education, however, the most high-profile drive to forge links with non-business teaching is not happening in the U.S., but in traditionally more conservative France. The country’s top business school, HEC Paris, for example, has already partnered with the prestigious engineering school École Polytechnique. And the French government has put the equivalent of more than $10 billion into a scheme which will in effect pay the country’s leading business and engineering schools to work more closely with other universities, research institutions, and the wider business communities.

But while the French are reaching deep into their (or at least their taxpayers’) pockets to bring science, art, and business together to boost economic output, what would seem like obvious partners for business schools in the U.S. go largely ignored. The California Institute of Technology and Princeton University, for example—ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, for engineering and technology in the 2012 Times Higher Education World University Ranking—are hotbeds of innovation and ideas without a business school of their own, or a substantial partnership with an external management educator. Yet Caltech, for one, is certainly no teacher of “ivory tower” science—its courses in behavioral and social neurosciences, for example, use a combination of neurology, psychology, and economics to analyze how individuals conduct business. And its alumni include such august corporate leaders as a former Boeing chairman and the co-founder of Intel.

And when it comes to top arts and design institutions, partnerships could offer so much more than clever design ideas and a more radical dress code. Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design in London, for example, is one of the world’s foremost schools in the fields of art, fashion, and design. With thousands of creative students and extensive ties to the creative economy, the school is an Aladdin’s Cave of ideas that are not just reacting to industry, but actually making industry. Head of Central Saint Martins, Jeremy Till, argues that a school like CSM has more to offer to business than the traditional bottom line of economic value and shareholder value: “As 2008 showed, the orthodoxy of valuing things on crazy growth principles and risky products such as CDOs means that we have to start talking about longer-term values—social values, the values of the employees, and community values,” he says. “Design is a way to understand the interconnectivity of these different types of values, and in our Innovation Management courses we think of business in a new manner as an alternative to the liberal orthodoxy.”

Perhaps business school deans should start moving more quickly and more imaginatively to create partnerships that will deliver real and lasting value to those they educate. Because if they do not, they may not only be letting down their students, but also risk facing a whole new set of direct competitors before long.

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