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        Addressing business education's silos

        January 29, 2018 By Troy Johnson

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        Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of Harbert Magazine. In spite of every indication that organizational decision making often involves an integrated perspective of the functional areas of business, many business-school curricula produce functional-area majors who do not have a grasp of the overall business context. Our accounting programs produce great accountants. Our marketing programs produce great marketers. But ask an accounting student about consumer behavior, or ask a marketing student about internal rate of return, and too often the reply will be, “That’s not my area.” If medical schools took the same approach, a cardiologist couldn’t help a choking victim and a urologist couldn’t perform CPR.   

        We need to address this situation. I believe we academics share the blame with corporate recruiters for it. We are often too busy to change our approach to business education, and corporate recruiters tend to recruit functional-area specialists. (An obvious exception to this, of course, is the consulting company that recruits the “best and brightest” that it can attract, regardless of major.) One way to approach this situation is to think about transforming the undergraduate business curriculum in a way that focuses on what businesses need people to do, not what they are hired to be. That is, business schools could focus on successful business behaviors, rather than being a particular business major. Let’s imagine a business curriculum that focuses on what successful business people are able to do, rather than a curriculum that is based on exposure to accounting, finance, marketing and so forth. What behaviors might we include? These come to my mind:  

        • Problem formulation.Business people need to be able to imagine the structure of their environment so that they may have a chance of managing it. In a world of increasing complexity and ambiguity, the benefits of understanding what problem you are trying to solve are immeasurable. Gaining consensus on the problem definition can go a long way toward exposing conflicting assumptions held by stakeholders. Besides, solving the wrong problem is guaranteed to be a waste of resources. 
        • Dealing with complexity.This is a natural topic to consider with problem formulation. Many business problems are complex problems, and complex problems are often messy problems. These problems are rarely “solved.” Instead, they are managed. Simply recognizing that some problems do not have solutions introduces a new way of thinking. For complex problems, thinking in terms of “right” or “wrong” solutions is not very productive at all. Rather, one must think in terms of “good” and “better” solutions. 
        • Well-being enhancement.Happy, healthy workplaces are more productive and profitable. Happy, healthy communities are attractive places to live and work. Well-being has many facets, such as emotional well-being, physical well-being, spiritual well-being, and financial well-being among others. Imagine investigating well-being concepts within functional areas at the individual, team, organization and community levels — along with the implications for business at each level. 
        • Data assessment.Data drives so much of our business decision making, yet how much time do we spend teaching students to examine the quality of the data being used for decision making? Data has so many important characteristics: age, source, volatility, accuracy and precision are a few that come immediately to mind. We should explicitly consider qualitative data, too, since we tend to focus on quantitative data in our typical classes on decision making (e.g., statistics). We might also integrate discussions of data ownership, in the sense that we may need to make a critical assessment about who should be able to access, change or use data in the first place. 
        • Behaving ethically in business.How we treat the information we hold about our stakeholders leads directly into business ethics. Trust is the cornerstone of all successful business transactions. In fact, business as we know it today was born when people began to trust others outside of their tribe or clan to trade in a trustworthy manner. Business schools often have a required business law class, but satisfying the law is the minimum a business should aspire to achieve. Ethical behavior often makes problems easier to formulate, decision making easier, and leads to healthier workplaces. 
        • Communicating clearly.Clear communication is critical to successful business outcomes. Writing and speaking clearly may be a skill that is in more demand today than ever before. The ability to portray data accurately and explain an analysis clearly are competencies that are highly sought in the business world. Businesses are known by the communication artifacts they create (memos, charts, proposals, and analyses) long before and long after the first face-to-face encounter occurs between a firm and a client.  
        • Creativity development.This topic could set the foundation for a number of business topics to follow. Innovation, entrepreneurship, and negotiation are topics that spring immediately to mind. I suspect that courses on creativity already exist at many campuses. 

          These are just a few ideas that come to mind. I’m sure that successful business leaders can add others. Still, imagine how our students might be perceived by industry or graduate schools if they were known for proficiency in these behaviors, regardless of their major.  

        David Paradice is Harbert Eminent Scholar and department chair in the Department of Systems and Technology.