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Creating Better Educational Institutions

post # 205 — October 4, 2006 — a General post

Both Stanford and Yale have recently announced new curricula for their business schools, and in both cases the reports I’ve seen suggest that both elite institutions have missed the point.

In both cases, what they have redesigned is the subject matter or course content of what they will study. However, it’s not the content which develops you as a student. Reading about and discussing managing people doesn’t make you any good at all at DOING it until you have had the chance to try it out in practice, with guided feedback.

Knowledge by itself is actually not what’s crucial in our success. It’s half-life is very short, and in today’s world knowledge is readily accessible for free. So any institution that tried to build its success on transmitting knowledge would be doomed to irrelevancy.

The key topics in education are not knowledge but two issues that straddle knowledge: ATTITUDES (which come before knowledge in determining your future) and SKILLS (meaning can you actually do anything.) Educational institutions do not give nearly enough thought to their power to shape attitudes and develop skills.

In this blog and elsewhere, we’ve complained that people are badly prepared for work life and that our educational institutions are no up to the job we really need them to perform.

So, let’s get constructive here. If you were going to design an educational institution that really prepared someone for a professional working career, and helped them develop the key skills, what elements would you put in place?

How would you design things so that we develop people with the right attitudes? What about expelling people with the wrong attitutdes?

Should educational institutions be either screening wrong attitude people or developing right attitude people? If so, how?

Similarly, what are the key skills that educational institutions should be building in people who are destined for professional work careers, and how can these skills be developed?

A couple of examples to get you started. When was the last time someone was expelled from an MBA program for being “not very good at getting people to trust him/her?” If winning and earning trust is so key to success in life, why do we graduate people who cannot do it?

If honor and integrity are so important, why don’t all educational institutions have and enforce an honor code (“I will not lie or cheat and will not tolerate those who do.”)

If communicating is so important, why don’t we give prizes to the people who have learned the most about their fellow students’ (IE were the best listeners?)

Why don’t we have special counseling programs for those students who seem unable to develop a circle of friends? (Not to help them socially, but to help them develop a crucial skill.)

OK everybody — let’s get creative here. Let’s offer some really good processes and practices for the educational institution truly designed to help prepare people for professional life. Ideas?

(By the way, this is not an idle exercize. As regular readers know, I gave a speech last Friday to 150 business school professors from central and eastern Europe. I have their email addresses. I PROMISE you they will receive the ideas you post here. Let’s change the world! )


Lance Dunkin said:


A few years of work experience should be required. (It would also help if the professors had industry experience or currently have some type side consulting role). This would allow discussions to flow from experience rather than pure academics.

An internship should be required between years. None of this year-round rushing through the program, but rather taking time off to apply principles from graduate courses.

There should be more electives and less required courses. Networking and part-time work should be given at least strong consideration for elective credit if it fits in the aims of the school’s goals (which I guess is partially what we are arguing. I don’t think credit should for managing/owning a hot dog stand if your emphasis is in corporate finance. However, if you are doing contracting in a potential career field—i.e. tax planning if you have an accounting emphasis—under the direction of a credible mentor this should be for credit).

Students should not work just for pay, however, as this would be a waste of their short time at a B-School. If they do decided to consult during the semester, they should be encouraged to consult in fields that will build their network and give them exposure to make a good decision on their career choice upon leaving B-School.

Students who have worked for a few years have a better understanding of the market and where they want their careers to go. It would be naive to think they have an understanding beyond a few years so they should still be subjected to some general studies to help them find a niche.


Yes, absolutely expel someone with the wrong attitude. Make this known upfront before they even apply. Most schools won’t expel because they don’t want to lose the tuition. So either accept a few more students than you want class size to be or don’t worry about the lost tuition—if you are weeding out those that wouldn’t make a contribution to your school it would be worth the cost. After the first semester start with those with a 4.0 (they usually only know their way from home to class to the library and home again). Find out who is meeting your standards and who is not (in regards to attitudes and skills).

To test for attitudes devise a means of finding out who has added to their network. What are they doing on the side? Do they have an internship lined up? How many of their classmates names and ambitions can come up with? How many professionals have they taken to lunch? What books/publications are they reading outside of course work? Etc, etc, etc.

Attitude is difficult to teach and there are probably enough students you can accept with good attitudes. Some schools make the mistake of too much focus on undergrad GPA and GMAT scores. These are great things in academia but less of an indicator than attitude in the world beyond B-School. Accept with certain standards on score but with more importance on attitude. Wasn’t there another blog post about hiring for attitude/character? I won’t recreate it here.

It would probably be best to test for skills through their internships or other experience by having employers/clients rate them on criteria including working with others, advising clients, and outcomes of management situations they are placed in.

Honor Code

See Brigham Young University (http://honorcode.byu.edu/Honor_Code.htm). BYU ranked 2nd in WSJ’s poll for ethics.

In addition, require at least one ethics course. Even an ethical person can make a bad decision with long-lasting consequences if it is packaged the right way and with a short amount of time to make a decision. If a student takes and actively participates in ethics courses, however, he/she can learn to think ethically and to preempt bad decisions as he/she will make the decision years before it might be presented.

posted on October 4, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Great contribution, Lance. thanks – it’s very helpful. But have we scared everybody else away? Or are they all just cramming for that 4.0 grade-point average you were talking about? I guess either education is not that hot a topic, or I blogged about it too recently!

posted on October 4, 2006

Jim Belshaw said:

David, I hesitated to comment on this because I don’t know enough about the US system. Recent discussions in another context have suggested that there are quite profound differences so far as training is concerned between the US and the Commonwealth/European tradition as modified in Australia. However, the general issues are important.

Before going on, in the context of your two markets as well as your desire to ask major questions, you might cast your eye over the Big Question approach just being trialled on the US Learning Circuits blog if you have not already seen it – http://learningcircuits.blogspot.com/2006/10/big-question-for-october-should-all_04.html. My feeling is that you have the audience reach to trial this yourself.

The mental map I use starts by distinguishing between education (learning to think critically, to learn) and training (learning how to do). When working as a trainer my focus is on the second, trying to ensure that those involved achieve the learning outcomes as defined.

Then with training, I too use the categories knowledge (knowing what to do), skills (being able to do) and attitude (approach to doing). But I would also add judgement (knowing when to do). If we look at this subdivision in the context of education, both thinking critically and learning to learn are skills.

From a training perspective, the significance of this fourfold subdivision is that the optimum training approach to be adopted varies between categories.

Knowledge can be acquired through self study and can be tested by conventional exam. In medicine, for example, knowledge of the basic science relevant to the field is usually tested by exam.

As you note, skills come from actually doing. The way this is done will vary from skill to skill. In all cases, they have to be tested by measuring the student’s capacity to do.

Attitude is harder, because it is so much more personal. As Lance said, you can test for it, but to teach it is hard. However, teaching attitude is both explicitly and implicitly built into professional training because people are expected to acquire the ethos of the profession and is sometimes explicitly tested at both a knowledge (what the attitude should be) and skill (is it applied in practice).

Judgement itself can only be acquired through doing, so to that extent it is a skill and must be measured in that way.

The final building block is the nature of the competence or competencies expected. The US does not use these terms in the same way as Australia. However, they provide a structured way of analysing what is expected from business or any other form of education and training.

Now if we link all this to the business schools and to professional training more broadly defined we find that most institutions do not disentangle the various elements.

Take the use of group work, a pretty standard teaching device in both graduate and undergraduate business studies. Just why is this approach used? Is it a more effective learning method? It may be, but in that case why do we measure outcomes as a group result against the content requirements of the course? Are we using group work as a device because people have to learn to work together? If so, we are teaching a skill that should be explicitly recognised. Or has the whole approach just been accepted?

I think the starting point for the ideal institution is one that has actually defined what it is doing, why it is doing it, how it is doing it and how the whole thing should be measured.

posted on October 7, 2006

Stephanie West Allen said:

David, I am wondering what you think about these changes at Harvard Law just passed by faculty vote?


What would be the preferred qualifications of people teaching these courses?

posted on October 8, 2006

Nigel Burke said:

David, Perhaps it’s no surprise that the likes of Yale and Stanford are not radically changing their approach to business education. Their courses are regularly ranked amongst the best in the world, they have their pick of the students who are willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars to study. Using the disruptive innovation framework developped by Clayton Christensen, the curriculum changes you refer to would be classed as sustaining innovation that is “innovation which makes improvements exploiting the existing processes and cost structures whilst making better use of current competitive advantages” i.e. the qualitity of curriculum. Perhaps more interestingly Christensen argues that true “disruptive innovation” and growth potential comes from looking outside the traditional providers of business education. In Christensen’s model this disruptive innovation comes from non-consummers; people who “have a job they want to get done but have historically lacked the skills or money to do be able to get it done” I our case people who want a high quality business education but who don’t have a high enough GMAT score or who are unable to pay the course fees. Reaching this group would require a radical paradigm shift with processes and practices needed to be re-assessed in order to significantly reduce unit costs whilst still maintaining high quality standards. A glimpse of how this can be done might be found in the PMBA movement which sprung up in response to a blog posting made by Seth Godin in which he stated “it’s hard for me to understand why [a fancy MBA] is a better use of time and money than actual experience combined with a dedicated reading of 30 or 40 books.” If we can develop a framework for making this a global, collaborative venture then I believe we might be in with a chance of changing the world!

posted on October 9, 2006