November 23, 2010 — Last week, the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business hosted an annual forum that gathers business school leaders to share and generate ideas for improving MBA curricula. Darden's attendees had a lot of recent experience to offer.
For the past 18 months, the school has been conducting a top-to-bottom review of its full-time MBA program. Out of this effort, the school has already implemented more than a dozen pilots and enhancements to the program this fall, including a complete makeover of the required first-year schedule to better coordinate classroom and related outside activities, and improve the process by which Darden students are recruited for post-graduation jobs. In addition, Darden is offering pilot "small seminars" for Darden first-year students on the meaning of success in business.
"The world is increasingly global. Industry is more volatile. Innovation is imperative. All of this says that the solutions to problems are not fixed in the past. They're fixed in the future," said Darden professor Scott Snell, who led the "Program Concept Team," made up of faculty and staff and convened by Darden Dean Bob Bruner to lead the review effort.
The team's first step was to listen and gather data from students, faculty, staff and recruiters. At the end of each school year, Darden convenes its students and asks them to share their ideas on how to make Darden's program – led by the world's best MBA teaching faculty, according to The Princeton Review and Financial Times – even better.
"We've heard a lot from students over the years, and we have always tried to make the program fully reflect what we have heard,'' said Robert M. Conroy, the faculty leader for the MBA program, who has been at Darden for 22 years. "But this current effort represents an even deeper dive into the wants and needs of all our various constituencies."
The Program Concept Team led the innovation conversation, but the entire school participated. Darden professor Jeanne Liedtka, a member of the team, used two design tools described in her upcoming book with Tim Ogilvie, "Designing for Growth: A Design Thinking Tool Kit for Managers," to facilitate the process. She used "journey mapping," an ethnographic research method to trace the journey of Darden's key stakeholders to develop a deeper understanding of their current experience and how to improve it. She also used "mind mapping," a methodology that takes all of the data gathered and uses a visual thinking technique to look for patterns and insights in order to create design criteria.
"We wanted to 'practice what we preach,'" Liedtka said, "and use leading-edge tools and techniques to innovate."
The team's process led to the idea of "connecting synergies that would lead to a better experience for people,'' Conroy said. "Students experience the MBA program in multiple dimensions. It's not just academics.''
Darden professor Robert L. Carraway, senior associate dean for degree programs, highlighted three significant changes that first-year students are already seeing this fall:
• A better balance between academics and recruiting by potential employers
• A more integrated program, not just curriculum, coordinating co-curricular activities, like clubs and networking events, with the curriculum
• An opportunity to engage in small seminars led by Darden's dean and senior faculty on the topic of "Business and Success."
Carraway said students are weary of juggling academics and recruiting at the same time. Both are too important to shrug off even temporarily.
"We tried to help students balance academics and recruiting by having more days focused entirely on academics and freeing other days for recruiting,'' he said.
Changing the schedule of first-year courses allows students to better integrate co-curricular activities – from club conferences to networking social events – with the subjects being taught, Carraway said.
"There are so many things students want to do,'' he said. "We want to help integrate those activities with the curriculum to maximize the benefit, recognizing that students experience Darden as far more than just what goes on in the classroom.''
There are 50 student-led clubs at Darden.
Carraway said the launch of small, first-year seminars as a pilot adds agility to the program. The seminars, led by professor Edward Freeman, an expert in business ethics and strategy, and Bruner, comprise three groups of 15 to 20 students apiece and focus on business and success.
"The seminars are designed to help students thoughtfully consider the excesses we've seen recently in business,'' Carraway said. "We want students to think about business and success. What does it mean to really be successful in business? What does it mean to have a successful career? We want them to think about why they are in the program and have chosen the career they have.''
These enhancements will build on the hallmarks of Darden's program: the case study method, highly acclaimed faculty and a tight-knit learning community, Bruner said.
In addition to the core courses of an MBA curriculum, Darden emphasizes leadership and ethics. Darden has had a mandatory, graded ethics course since 1968 – an offering that most other top business schools are just now offering in the wake of corporate scandals.
"The basic DNA of this program is pretty much where it's been,'' Snell said. "But, like the best companies who do this on a regular basis, we want to keep improving and refining.''
The Program Concept Team's work is not done. In addition to recommending immediate improvements to the program, Bruner tasked the team with addressing the long-term issue of how to build innovation into the MBA program.
"Schools regularly engage in 'episodic' program review and innovation, typically every five years or so," Carraway said. "In today's fast-evolving world, this is simply not acceptable. Innovation is something that needs to be standard operating procedure, something we engage in all the time."
So the team's final task is to recommend a set of systems and processes that will ideally eliminate the need for a future Program Concept Team.