I was privileged to be invited to a “Future of Business Education” conference hosted by the Acton MBA program in Austin, Texas, this past Fall. Jeff Sandefer, founder of the Acton MBA in Entrepreneurship and an entrepreneur, educational innovator, and philanthropist, assembled a group of entrepreneurs and thought leaders in business education to discuss some of the thornier issues facing this constituency today. It was a provocative and inspiring few days and I’ll try and detail some of the discussion here.
Acton MBA in Entrepreneurship
First, some background on Acton MBA and Jeff Sandefer provides a great deal of context necessary to fully appreciate the conference event, partly because it already represents an evolution in how business education and education in general can be approached. The Acton MBA is actually part of a series of related entities:
- Acton MBA in Entrepreneurship (www.actonmba.org) – an intensive, one-year MBA program taught entirely by entrepreneurs. It pledges that students will “learn how to learn, learn how to make money and learn how to live a Life of Meaning”. The website describes it as a “simulation and case-based curriculum” and Sandefer, a graduate of Harvard Business School, is a proponent of case-based teaching and participant-centered learning (300 case studies are analyzed over the one-year program). The program even offers fellowships to front tuition/expenses in exchange for students pledging 10% of their salary back to fund future fellowships. Students rate teachers weekly and every year the lowest-ranked teachers are cycled out.
- My Entrepreneurial Journey (www.myej.org) – billed as “a 90-day Entrepreneurial Boot Camp”, this is a “series of challenges and exercises created by master entrepreneurs to prepare you for a more successful, fulfilling life in business”. Originally designed as a pre-matriculation curriculum for the Acton MBA program, it has since evolved to a standalone curriculum integrated into programs at other schools (including Northwestern University, Marquette University, Oklahoma University, and the University of Chicago among others). Part portal and part personal learning environment, it provides content, links to simulations, tools, and exercises, and a journal that includes reflections on Learning to Know, Learning to Do, and Learning to Be.
- Action Foundation for Entrepreneurial Excellence (AFEE -- www.actonfoundation.org) – a foundation dedicated to taking entrepreneurs, honing their mentorship capabilities, and training them to be teachers for ‘aspiring entrepreneurs’. This includes the ‘Acton Hero’s Journey’ (www.actonhero.org) – a set of inspirational videos from successful entrepreneurs, along with guidelines on how successful entrepreneurs can thank their mentors and mentor the next generation.
- Acton Academy (http://www.actonacademy.org/) – run by Laura Sandefer, this cutting edge elementary and middle school (and soon to include high school) employs Montessori and Socratic teaching methods and peer-peer learning and utilizes game/project-based learning, apprenticeship assignments, and spiritual/artistic/athletic development – all with a sensitivity to skill levels, learning styles, personality traits, etc. Its philosophy sates that “We believe that clear thinking leads to good decisions, that good decisions lead to the right habits, that the right habits lead to character and that character becomes destiny.” Jeff Sandefer stated that in the first 10 months of the program, the children advanced 2.5 grade levels in reading/writing/arithmetic, and then repeated that same gain in the second 10 months. Most activities are quest-based, project-based exercises where the children embark on a variation of a “Hero’s Journey” – high stakes are outlined within each exercise, but accompanied by a high confidence placed in the children. The curriculum also centers around the ‘Hero’s Journey’ idea described above, where quest-oriented missions tie activities together into an overall motivational framework. Sandefer feels that this type of curriculum in combination with internships may even remove the need for some of these students to attend college.
According to Wikipedia, “Acton grew out of the curriculum developed by the Acton Foundation for Entrepreneurial Excellence (AFEE). Founded by Jeff Sandefer, an entrepreneur and teacher at the University of Texas, AFEE was created to publish entrepreneurship cases and notes and spread entrepreneurship curriculum to schools across the United States. While at UT, Sandefer was ranked one of the top ten entrepreneurship professors in the country by BusinessWeek. In 2002, Sandefer and fellow teachers, Phil Siegel, Vaughn Brock and Jack Long left the University of Texas and founded The Acton School of Business. Acton graduated its first class in 2004. The school derives its name from Lord Acton, a 19th century scholar and originator of the famous quote ‘Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’” Sandefer has an extensive history of educational reform in Texas, not always without controversy (here is an article on educational reform in his own words, and here is a critique indicative of those who criticize his influential role).
The “Future of Business Education” at the Acton MBA was an impressive event. Acton invited roughly fifty teachers, educational innovators, and education thought leaders to come to campus. This included teachers from Acton, entrepreneurs , thought leaders in education, learning and training experts, business program designers, current MBA students, and mentors from the Acton community. Experiential learning guru Clark Aldrich was one of the attendees – in fact every attendee was given a copy of his Unschooling Rules book, which Sandefer called the “most important book out there on educational reform.” We’ve consulted with Clark Aldrich ourselves and I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing him and writing about him a few times here already.
We were allowed to sit in on a teacher’s meeting (including watching their review of classroom videos to examine exchanges and identify best practices and learning moments), observe two classroom business case debrief sessions, and sit in with student case preparation study teams. Then ultimately we wrestled with the main challenge – exploring the future of business education. True to form, this was not a series of Powerpoint presentations. Acton created two custom business case studies that participants read prior to the event and came prepared to discuss. Each case framed important aspects concerning business education. I hope they eventually release these to the public, so for now I’ll just describe them at a very high level.
The Unsettled Future of Business Education
The first was called “The Unsettled Future of Business Education” and followed the tough decision that fictitious educator Bill Martin faces as he tries to decide between taking a job as Dean of “Megastate Graduate School of Business” or taking the job opening a new division of the Center for Creative Leadership that would compete against traditional business schools. Clearly the case was meant to force an accounting of those principles and practices but also competencies and results that business schools instill versus those that might best be provided outside traditional academic environments. In short, which environment offered the best opportunity for educating future business leaders? The case protagonist approaches the problem through the same series of questions that many business educators and reformers currently struggle with:
1. What should be the end goal of business education? The protagonist explores options: is the ultimate goal to contribute to the health of the academic institution?; is it for scholars to contribute toward making management a ‘real’ profession? Or is it to focus on best serving student needs? Clearly the unique architecture of the Acton model – practitioners as master teachers – reveals a bias away from the sheer research/academic goals of ‘traditional’ academic environments (that strive to ‘create new business knowledge’) and aims for a much more utilitarian, competency-based mission to best serve students. But even that goal is dissected further, having the reader explore deeper variants for what it means to best serve students – To help create more meaningful lives? To place students in higher-paying jobs? And what does it mean to be a ‘good manager’? The case explores the evolution in modern business education away from the tacit skills required of real-world managers and toward discreet, functional skills that map well to research but not to practice.
2. What were the most pressing challenges facing traditional business schools, and did any of these really threaten the sustainability of the current models? The risk of MBA commoditization is explored. The case cites the work of HBS professors David Garvin and Srikant Dakar in support of this (interestingly, these same authors’ future vision of the MBA program is remarkably lean on including simulations and other non-case-based experiential learning tools -- see earlier blog post). As institutions are forced to acquiesce to the demand for shorter programs, wasn’t this a sign that the degree was a commodity and the delivery options (program length, flexibility in time/place) had become the true differentiators for students/participants? Also technology had continued to disrupt traditional models (more on Clay Christensen’s theory of disruptive technology as he sees it applied to education can be read in this earlier blog post). And corporate training facilities and programs, and even internal corporate universities, also challenged traditional models.
3. Did business curriculum or pedagogy need a serious overhaul? If so, what needed to be done? MBA programs are trying to revise their curricula, but the discipline-specific approach is entrenched in both academic institution and the research journals that underpin the tenure model. For instance, many business programs had very few courses in sales – a fundamental aspect of real-world business but not considered a ‘scholarly’ discipline for research and teaching. On the pedagogical front, case studies at business schools were in general declining in use as more traditional lecture-based approaches were employed, further challenging the ability of students to learn ‘doing’ rather than just ‘knowing’ (see the aforementioned interview with Clark Aldrich for more on this topic). Changing the curriculum at an academic institution is incredibly difficult. Acton structured their curriculum around the stages of business growth. And the Yale School of Management re-structured their curriculum to create an integrative, cross-discipline approach.
4. Who was most qualified to prepare graduates for productive and meaningful lives in business, and how should these teachers be recognized and rewarded? The growing disparity between theory and practice is examined, exacerbated by the fact that incentives for current, tenure-track faculty leave them without a focus on what it takes to run a real business. And adjuncts with real business experience are often untrained in pedagogical techniques to truly impart their knowledge to students. Some way to combine pedagogy and experience is needed. The Acton MBA program takes experienced business entrepreneurs and puts them through a rigorous case teaching regiment. And then they are also paid a low salary and bonused based on student ratings.
Based on these factors and challenges, which job would you take if you were Bill Martin? That was the case debrief discussion facilitated among the conference attendees in an Acton classroom.
A New Frontier: Inspiring and Equipping the Next Generation of Entrepreneurs
The second case was called “A New Frontier: Inspiring and Equipping the Next Generation of Entrepreneurs” and follows fictitious entrepreneur, educator, and philanthropist Carl Adams as he considers how to best invest hundreds of millions of dollars if his goal was that which was stated in the case study title. Carl believed the primary purpose of an education was to help a student ask and answer the following questions:
1. Who am I and where am I going? The idea here was that tools and skills were not enough – deeper, more philosophical and epistemological questions had to be addressed.
2. What skills do I need to learn, and which skill should I master? This includes not only ‘learning to do’, but discovering one’s own unique talents that best afford a fulfilling life by doing something that you are good at.
3. Who will affirm me and hold me responsible? The need for mentors and coaches is paramount here – not only to lead and guide but also to hold one accountable to the investments you promise to make in yourself.
4. How will I prove what I can do? A diploma isn’t enough – a portfolio of work showing actual outputs will become increasingly necessary to compete and advance.
Carl then examines what he sees to be the major challenges to any new approach to entrepreneurial education, including attracting the right people at the time, constructing the right curriculum for lifelong learning, establishing deep relationships between students/teachers/mentors, and doing all this within an environment that contained the same credibility as the current academic degree.
The case study then outlines many real-world organizations that both inspire Carl based on part or whole of their model. Historical organizations are examined: Alcoholics Anonymous for their structure of willing mentors; the Boy Scouts for their ability to focus on lifelong learning and ‘learn to do’ skills; Junior Achievement for their focus on building entrepreneurial skills and spirit, and several more. And emerging models are also examined: Startup Weekend for their ability to focus quickly on how to build a company; Lemonade Day for their ability to inspire participants into the basics of running a business (using a lemonade stand to learn the fundamentals), and several more.
Finally Carl examines the Acton MBA’s own My Entrepreneurial Journey program (described earlier). How does this program stack up? How could it better? Does it fundamentally contain the elements (and avoid the pitfalls) Carl feels are necessary to ensuring the best return on his investment? By providing a quick survey of real world organizations and using them to assess another real world program in My EJ, the case study provides a great discussion laboratory for how to approach this very real challenge. And it was incredible to be part of a case discussion on this topic with so many real-world entrepreneurs and philanthropists. Many felt that the investment amount was simply too large (one entrepreneur said “If you gave me $100 million I’d give back most of it – smaller amounts force you to innovate and more quickly assess what’s working, and I don’t want the curse of expectations that comes from too large an investment”).
I’ve only revealed partial information that’s present in these two case studies themselves and I don’t want to get too deeply into the details of the resulting case discussion, especially since I really hope these are used in business and/or educational classrooms in the future. But it was a great way to frame and discuss these problems and do so in a way that ‘walked the talk’ regarding experiential learning and business case method pedagogy. And in a big room full of a lot of smart people, there was some agreement on certain topics but passionate disagreement on others, just as you’d expect. But the context and experience that formed the basis for each participant’s rationale was at a level higher than I think you’d find in most classrooms or conferences.
Some themes emerged from the case discussions and also the great informal discussions that occurred throughout the conference.
- What’s working vs. what’s not working. Business schools were seen as doing an adequate-to-good job in helping students analyze problems, exposing them to different fields and business theories, creating social networks for them, teaching them to create business plans, and working in teams. They were seen as doing a poor-to-mixed job in training real-world managers (who face challenges and opportunities that slice across disciplines), preparing leaders for productive and ethical lives, and dealing with diversity. Clark Aldrich, who has done a lot of work exploring ‘knowing vs. doing’, pointed out that most of what they do well concerns “knowing” while most of what they do bad concerns “doing”.
- What needs to change? Curriculum? If so, can this be done within the confines entrenched legacies of existing educational institutions? (See Clay Christensen and Henry Eyring’s The Innovative University which explores how the combination of deliberate vision and unintended consequences in academia’s history has led it to the current state of disarray. Also see Lloyd Armonstrong’s vision of the future of higher education.) Pedagogy? Case teaching and experiential learning are hard on both instructors and students – is the value proposition supported at the school? Who teaches? What is the best model for training practitioners in the art of instruction? How can we evolve from teaching “knowing” to teaching “doing” and “being”? The incentives for teaching? Accountability for quality is an issue, as is the overall culture of incentives at the school and across the industry. Credibility and credentialing? A diploma means something, and yet in many ways is becoming a less valid indicator of the real-world skillset and competencies needed in the marketplace. Should new models of credentialing be explored? (This included discussion about the Mozilla Open Badges program and concept whereby a new form of credential is introduced to the market. It’s interesting that this same concept is being explored and utilized in the Open Content and Open Education movement – see earlier blog post.)
- Will the current disruptive threats to the business education model ultimately help change the direction and quality for students? If so, how close are we to the point of true disruption?
Overall, an incredibly impressive – and more importantly, inspiring – event for those concerned with business education and education in general.
To hear Jeff Sandefer talk about many of the topics discussed here, watch this YouTube clip of his presentation at a local TED conference in Oklahoma City (TEDxOKC).
For more on Clark Aldrich, visit his blog on Unschooling Rules.