Business + Design: Exploring a Competitive Edge for Business Thinking

Article excerpt



Today's business schools prepare future business leaders and managers to address complex issues that often lack definitive solutions, require broad collaborations, and have arduous social implications. Business education programs, therefore, seek opportunities to provide unique learning experiences to enhance their graduates' business toolbox and sharpen their competitive edge in the market place. Within this context, some business educators have begun to explore the unique aspects of design thinking and its value to business education. This study explores the supposition that business education infused with design thinking (in an effective action-learning format with reflective practice) might provide an innovative element to the business toolbox that positions graduates to creatively and effectively address intricate, formidable, and extensive social and organizational needs.

Business school graduates are employed to function in high-performing, interdisciplinary teams consisting of diversely trained individuals who address complex and often confusing problems (termed "wicked" problems by Horst Rittel, in the 1960s). It is common knowledge that their alma maters have been criticized for not preparing them adequately. Critics have pointed to a range of educational deficiencies, from outmoded teaching methods to failing to impart a sense of social responsibility (Bennis and O'Toole, 2005; Buchanan, 1992; Coomber, 2009; Friga, Bettis, and Sullivan, 2003; Ghoshal, 2005; Hawawini, 2005; Holland, 2009; Mintzberg, 2004; Mitra, 2008; Navarro, 2008; Pfeffer and Fong, 2004 and 2002; Ruas, Becker, and Balbinot, Z., 2008; Starkey and Tempest, 2005).

Whether the quality of business education has, indeed, decreased, or the needs of business have changed more rapidly than schools' curricula and pedagogical methods, or an alternate explanation exists is difficult to determine. But the consensus is that educators need to adapt their programs to match the contemporary business climate--one that is fast-paced and complex.

Interdisciplinary instruction in business

To their credit, many business schools have made changes and continue to adjust their teaching approaches and curricula to ensure their programs' relevance, rigor, and effectiveness. Examples of such efforts include interdisciplinary curricula such as Yale's MBA program with a core curriculum of eight multidisciplinary courses (Podolny, 2008; Yale School of Management, 2009); Wharton's numerous interdisciplinary undergraduate and graduate business programs (Wharton, University of Pennsylvania, 2009); and Wake Forest's Babock School of Management MBA program (Wake Forest, 2009), which includes substantial applied and interdisciplinary components, to name a few. Other programs in most top business schools partner with disciplines outside business, such as engineering and medicine, to provide targeted interdisciplinary approaches.

As evidenced by the interdisciplinary enhancements promoted by these business schools, the narrow or circumscribed perspectives (also described as silos of learning) attributed to traditional business-school curricula are commonly seen as a large part of its perceived shortcomings. Certainly, many forms of cross-disciplinary experiences reap benefits for business students, but certain combinations have more advocates than others. One often effective and widely adopted cross-disciplinary approach, for example, combines engineering and business.

While combinations like this provide students with knowledge from more than one discipline recently attention has been given to exposure that might offer students not just additional or specialized knowledge sets, but different mental models offering fresh cognitive, attitudinal, and interpersonal elements. For example, many have suggested that the methods and approaches of designers, in disciplines related to the arts, provide a framework for thinking that is helpful to, or even essential for, today's managers (Adler, 2006; Boland and Collopy, 2004; Breen, 2004; Cardozo, Durfee, Ardichvili, Adams, Erdman, Hoey, Iaizzo, Mallick, Bar-Cohen, Beachy, and Johnson, 2002; Dunne and Martin, 2006; Martin, 2007a, 2007b; Nussbaum, 2005; Senge, 1994; Simon, 1996; Thomke and Feinberg, 2009; Wang and Wang, 2008; West, 2007; Woyke and Maha, 2007). …