FALL 1997 Montanan - Volume 15, Number 1
by Patrick Hutchins
"The process and products of business school education have changed as little as the process and products of any kind of school education, whereas business itself has gone through revolutions. "
-Stan Davis and Jim Botkin The Monster Under the Bed.
Walk through the William and Rosemary Gallagher Building with Larry Gianchetta, dean of the School of Business Administration, and you'll be impressed. With sunlight streaming through acres of blue-tinted glass, the handsome building seems flooded with the radiance of a bright future. And why not? The $15 million structure is a monument to new thinking, new ways of learning and new technology. Classrooms look like a cross between a corporate conference room and the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. Computer labs stretch on endlessly. Corner offices are lavish and airy, enough to tempt a rival CEO into dreams of a hostile takeover.
And it's got a monster panting at the gates.
In the early 1990s, when he first awoke to the crisis facing the business of business education, Gianchetta presided over a professional school whose 1950s-era quarters symbolized almost too neatly his sense that the school's curriculum needed major changes. Now, in a brand new building networked with millions of dollars' worth of up-to-the-nanosecond computers, Gianchetta and his school would appear to be firmly planted on the back of that monster.
But what exactly is the monster?
"Some (business) schools offer team teaching and team learning; others beef up their international fare. Course materials have been upgraded, and some class offerings have changed, but the 1960s product is still quite recognizable and serviceable in the 1990s. "
-Davis and Botkin, Ibid.
Gianchetta's wake-up call was The Monster Under the Bed, a visionary look at how technology is transforming business and education. Its authors, a pair of ex-Harvard business and education instructors turned-motivational-gurus, maintain that computer technology makes possible, then demands, new ways of dealing with what we know. Starting with the simple collection and crunching of data, computers-ever more powerful, ever cheaper-have brought us to today's Information Age, when information of all sorts floods our everyday lives. This will give way to an Age of Knowledge, the authors maintain, when computers, telecommunications and people co-exist so smoothly that anyone will be able to access the power of technology without any special training. This movement is being driven by global capitalism, which after triumphing over Soviet communism is now free to search for profit among the flood of new technologies spawned during the half century of Cold War.
We need more information than ever to function in this brave new world, according to Davis and Botkin, and it is no longer possible -even for computer jocks-to learn a job and then cruise. Today's super-duper Pentium processor with MMX technology will become tomorrow's IBM 386, and the specialized knowledge required to design, build, produce, market and use it will fast become obsolete.
Business has responded by getting into the learning business. McDonalds's Hamburger University seems laughable to most academics, but "graduates" can do things few b-school grads know how to do: sell cheeseburgers with the help of a clown or run a successful real-world business.
The faculty and staff of the School of Business Administration at The University of Montana- Missoula are committed to excellence in innovative experiential learning and professional growth through research and service.
-Mission Statement of the School of Business Administration at The University of Montana- Missoula.
The first draft of the school's new mission statement was two pages long. It was whittled down by the school's thirty-five faculty members in a process that included focus groups of business leaders. The final result is remarkable in that it contains neither the words "education" nor "teaching." Rather, it commits itself to "experiential learning."
In their book, Davis and Botkin are careful to draw the distinction between education and learning: "In the four steps to wisdom, education is instruction and mastery at a given level, and learning is the movement from one level to the next. Schools teach education more than they teach learning." No more can students simply master a certain subject, then go out and practice that mastery in the workplace. Now they must spend their entire lives in the interstitial fluid of learning, swimming up the river of knowledge toward wisdom and, with luck, higher income.
Gianchetta notes that the school's new catalog will explicitly state that "no student will graduate from the school of business administration without at least three different kinds of 'experiential opportunity,' including internships at the school's Small Business Institute, its World Trade Center or outside companies."
One might expect that such a sea change would be resisted by an entrenched faculty, but Gianchetta claims this isn't so: "Some of the people most enthusiastic about the changes are the old war horses," he says. "The reward is that it has revitalized all of us."
Paul Larson, professor of management and director of UM's Small Business Institute, is all for the changes. Larson's students work with established or start-up businesses, writing business plans, improving efficiency and suggesting new business techniques. Because people's lives and livelihoods are affected by these "student exercises," Larson's interns experience an invigorating seriousness about their work.
Assistant Professor Tom Ottaway, on the other hand, watches the new developments cautiously. A newer member of the faculty, Ottaway is no stranger to the wonders of technology-he worked at Boeing and has used computers extensively for statistical analysis. Though he's open to technology, he doesn't see anything "broken" in the old ways. For all the buzz over "distance education," for example, Ottaway sees it primarily as a new delivery system for the same content, and he worries about what might get lost if a "virtual campus" starts to replace the real thing.
All in all, though, faculty members seem to be taking their new mission seriously. David Owen, president of the Montana Chamber of Commerce, notes that "They've brought in real leaders on the advisory board, and they do listen. Their dedication to making that mission statement come alive truly impressed me."
"More and more time seems to be spent preparing for jobs and careers that will no longer exist on graduation day, and many students welcome more involvement with business."
-Davis and Botkin, Ibid.
Nowhere is the emphasis on experiential learning more evident than in management Professor Maureen Fleming's office. Fleming runs the school's internship program, and business is booming. Last year she placed 143 students in paid internships at dozens of companies throughout the U.S. Last year student interns pulled down more than $380,000 while earning 271 credits. That's down from the $401,000 earned by 147 interns in 1996, but up from 1995, when ninety-two interns earned nearly $224,000.
One internship the school likes to showcase was Kirt Dennis' stint at BMW in Salzburg, Austria. Though he arranged the internship, the picture in the business school's brochure of Dennis standing next to a shiny new Beemer doesn't hurt the school's image as a global player. Neither do the colorful maps showing UM grads sprinkled like seed corn across the world from London to Kuala Lumpur.
More typical, perhaps, is Mike Mathieus. While working as a sales associate at the Sears store in Missoula, Mathieus noticed a loophole in the company's inventory system through which its profitability was leaking. He proposed an internship to his manager and Fleming. Mathieus devised a procedure that moved the store's profitability from fourteenth out of fifteen in the region to number one. So impressed was his district manager that Mathieus may spend the next few months traveling to all fifteen stores implementing his system.
Tara Stecher is completing her third internship, this one at GTE's office in Lexington, Kentucky, where she's researching market opportunities in the deregulated telecommunications industry. Ray Laidet found an internship at Southwest Bank in his hometown of St. Louis, Missouri, where he is earning a teller's salary and seven university credits at the same time. "If you're going to work in a bank," Laidet says, "you might as well start as a teller and learn the business from the bottom up."
Internships are also one of the best ways to land a job after graduation. Many companies have an "interns only" hiring policy; it gives both parties the opportunity to live together awhile before making a commitment. That turns business schools like UM into powerful gatekeepers between the brightest young "knowledge workers" and the companies that need them. The relationship is reciprocal, too; through the intercession of business school graduates at Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard, the school obtained generous gifts of computers and software.
"For educators, the take-away is that schools and institutions can rehabilitate themselves, reverse their decline, and enter into an era of rebirth... These institutions must become specialized niche players in a more diversified world of learning."
-Davis and Botkin, Ibid.
Does experiential learning work?
"That is the golden question," acknowledges Gianchetta. Like the corporations it hopes to continue serving, UM's business school has a business plan. "What we've done is lay out our goals, our strategy, our action plan and then our measures."
Associate Dean Robert Hollmann, whose responsibilities include tracking those measures, says it's too early to tell. The new philosophy has been influencing students for several years, however, and judging by the growth in placement rates of graduates and student interns and successes in regional and national competitions, UM's business school is achieving respectable success.
When asked if he thinks his school is effectively meeting the challenges posed by Davis and Botkin's book, Gianchetta says that the school is "pretty well poised" for what is happening in the business world. "There' s an advantage to being a smaller state school because we have more flexibility in making these changes than a University of Michigan might." Were The Monster Under the Bed written today, three years later, Gianchetta believes it might not take such a dim view of business school education-especially at The University of Montana.
The business school's willingness to carve out a specialty "niche" in the emerging global economy and redefine itself as a corporate trainer may be seen by some as a sad retreat from the noble ideals of an independent academia. To Gianchetta, who heard the monster rumbling under the bed and dispelled its terror with a flood of blue-tinted light, the move is rational, necessary and ultimately, humane.
Patrick Hutchins is a freelance writer in Missoula.