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Dollars and Sense: An MBA for the Real World

Dollars and Sense 

An MBA for the Real World
by Aric Krause Interim Dean of the Bill and Vieve Gore School of Business


What do you do when one of your flagship products faces increasingly stiff competition? If you’re in the business school, you think outside the box to create an even better product—one that meets today’s market needs, and one that can dynamically adjust to meet tomorrow’s demands— a task that encompasses numerous challenges.

MBA employers globally have been realizing that what they want from graduates with MBAs and what traditional educational institutions are offering are not necessarily the same thing. Fortunately, the convergence of three major issues gave us the opportunity to be truly innovative.

First, competition in the Salt Lake Valley among MBA programs continues to heat up. Second, increased competition means that employers have more power in determining what an MBA program should look like. Third, the college recently unveiled its 10-year strategic plan, which calls for innovative thinking in curricular design.

These three opportunities allowed us to really reflect on what we wanted to accomplish with our MBA program.We immediately began meeting with executive advisory boards, faculty, alumni, and potential students to determine market needs.

In business-speak, the goal was to build a new program that complemented our set of competitive advantages and that truly gave value to both of our primary clients—students and employers. Designing such a program, however, meant that faculty had to think creatively in terms of how academia works. One of the first things we realized through our research is that we had to teach business as it really occurs: no individual functional area of business operates in a vacuum, so, for example, we have to teach market concepts along with finance concepts. Students must be able to make decisions that are in the best interest of the entire global operation, not just of their department or product.

We also discovered that our graduates need to be able to “make executive decisions within dynamic environments,” an easily said but complex goal that also evolved into the program’s vision statement.

In addition to developing innovative cross-functional courses, the faculty needed to build in mechanisms across courses and throughout the program to measure student success in achieving these outcomes. One of the things we’re most proud of is that we’ve designed every course from scratch; we have not simply renamed courses. This gives us the ability to be very specific about how courses build upon each other, how topics get covered over the whole program, and how skills get developed.

Another important aspect of revamping the MBA program was ensuring that students achieve not only the professional requirements in finance, marketing, and strategy, for example, but that they also acquire a personal set of skills to succeed in a global market place. To be successful leaders who make and implement corporate decisions, our graduates need to have a very specific set of skills, such as executive-level communication, strategic thinking, ethical decision making, analytical and critical thinking, the ability to network, and expertise in conducting research. Adding in these types of skills requires other methodologies for program assessment.

We’re very proud of the innovative approaches taken by our faculty. They’ve made very sure that both the professional and personal skills are being incorporated across courses. For example, the strategic thinking concept is introduced in “The Language of Strategy,” a course which is taken in the first semester. Faculty worked together, then, to build layers of strategic complexity into subsequent classes to give students practical experience at formulating strategy. This means that not only are students being introduced to concepts, but they have also applied strategy in a finance context, a marketing context, an operations context, and so on. When our students graduate, they are ready to contribute immediately in the work environment.

One of the other significant aspects of the rebuilding process was ensuring that we were practicing what we preach in classes. An example is that we’ve constantly asked ourselves about the value of our MBA relative to that of our competitors. As a result, we’ve spent a significant amount of time evaluating nationwide competitors and listening to our alumni, students, and corporate executives to make sure that we are offering what they desire and providing the highest degree of value possible.

Adding value to the program means a complete rethinking of pricing, mode of delivery, and “extras.” The program is now available for a fixed price that literally includes everything: books, materials, fees, a 10-day international trip, and access to workshops, seminars, and college functions.We’ve taken the needs of our market very seriously and have carefully designed a comprehensive, integrated bundle of offerings that will make our students leaders in their fields.

However, the learning doesn’t stop when students complete the program.We want our alumni actively engaged in workshops, seminars, and courses.We want a lifelong relationship with our students and alumni—the benefits to everyone are huge. Having alumni in workshops and auditing courses brings a tremendous wealth of experience and networking to everyone; in terms of connecting with ideas and talent, both the alumni and the students benefit.

The new MBA program is 100% live starting with the fall 2005 semester. One of the most gratifying aspects of all our work has been significant market confirmation over the past several months. The Harvard Business Review, an academic trade journal entitled BizEd, the Wall Street Journal, and USA Today have all recently featured articles questioning the ability of MBA programs to meet today’s market needs. These external sources are asking whether or not traditional academia, with all its entrenched habits and customs, is capable of innovating. I am thankful that I work for an institution like Westminster College with a strategic plan that mandates innovation.

The Westminster MBA: Preparing students for executive decision making in dynamic environments.

Business leadership requires thorough analysis of possible solutions to questions or issues that arise—questions about corporate mission, investment choices, product development, pretty much everything. Our program prepares students to understand the implications of decisions across all functional areas. Equally important, our students must be able to do this across dynamic environments, be they global, national, regional, or local, or in markets where demand is shifting over time. These two points, together, drive what we need to do, how we do it, and how we will evolve in the future.

Westminster’s strategic plan calls for educational programs that are “distinctive in their emphasis on theory and practice and on active, collaborative, and cross-disciplinary learning.” The faculty of the Bill and Vieve Gore School of Business have incorporated this philosophy into its major graduate business program.