Roger Martin and the new liberal arts MBA

This morning’s New York Times had a great article entitled Multicultural Critical Theory. At Business School? highlighting the changes many business schools are making in the way they teach their students. Probably the most visible leader of this movement has been Roger Martin, Dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, who is prominently featured in the article (and will be speaking here in Raleigh next month at the Institute for Emerging Issues Forum).

(VIDEO: a recent Roger Martin talk)

What kind of changes are the schools making? From the article:

“While few [business schools] talk explicitly about taking a liberal arts approach to business, many of the changes are moving business schools into territory more traditionally associated with the liberal arts; multi-disciplinary approaches, an understanding of global and historical context and perspectives, a great focus on leadership and social responsibility and, yes, learning how to think critically.”

Why? Look around you. In business, we are currently experiencing a double crisis of ethics and innovation. Take the results of a recent Gallup poll on Honesty and Ethics of Professions. Americans now trust the ethics and honesty of businessmen less than lawyers. Ouch.

At the same time, as Gary Hamel tells anyone who will listen, the management model that got us through the industrial age is showing signs of wear, old companies are failing, and the most innovative new companies are using models that look suspiciously, well, liberal-arts like. Think Google, Whole Foods, heck, we even fit that model at Red Hat.

For me, the key phrase in the quote from the article above is “multi-disciplinary approaches.” Meaning: the new business school graduate should not reject the concepts of the classic business school curriculum, but instead add other disciplines to them.

And rather than or. This is exactly what many of the most innovative business schools in the world are trying.

At his school, Martin has added a series of classes beyond the core disciplines, including classes on integrative thinking (which help students learn how to analyze business cases, then break them down into core logic and assumptions) and design thinking (which we’ve talked about many times previously in this blog).

And the Rotman School of Management is not alone. The Times article notes numerous examples of other business schools that are testing new ideas. One that caught my eye:

“Yale has also added a “problem framing” course that tries to have students think more broadly, question assumptions, view problems through multiple lenses, and learn from history. “There’s a great deal to learn from Bismark, Kissinger, F.D.R. and JFK about problem framing,” says Paul Bracken, a professor who designed the course.”

Still, it seems we are at the starting gate of change. One final quote from the article:

“Will any of these changes have a big role in preventing future economic crises? Opinions here are more mixed. If businesses’ pay systems keep rewarding short-term, high-risk or narrowly focused behavior, many say, what business programs teach is unlikely to have much impact.”

But it has to start somewhere. And in my mind, there’s no better place to start than with the folks coming out of school right now.

About Chris Grams

Chris Grams is Head of Marketing at Tidelift. He is also the author of The Ad-Free Brand: Secrets to Successful Brand Positioning in a Digital World.


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