Crisis Requires New Teaching Approaches, says Ely Dahan

Ely Dahan is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at UCLA-Anderson School of Management and is currently serving as a visiting professor at MIT's Sloan School. Much of Dahan's research focuses on the power of predictive markets, where individuals can vote on the potential success of new products, business models and other innovations. I talked with Dahan about how business schools can best teach the innovation tools needed in an ever-changing global economy.

Dann: Your new students are facing a very different economic environment in their futures. How is this changing the business school experience?

Dahan: What does it mean to people who are at business school today that the financial markets could be in upheaval for a number of years? A lot of people have come to business school with the hopes of going to Wall Street, becoming bankers-- becoming consultants to the financial industry. It could very well be that the jobs just aren't there. This industry may have killed itself. I think there is going to be a shift in the kinds of jobs MBAs are getting over the next five years. I think product innovation and marketing can still be a big leverage point for us. That's where America can still be the best. The financial sector was a huge leverage point and benefit to us, but we may have lost that-- at least for a while. And manufacturing for the most part is being done elsewhere. But the good news is: we don't have to be great about all this stuff.

Dann: How do you think business schools themselves are going to change in this new environment?

Dahan: When you combine the meltdown with global competition and the fact that China and other places are going to be the manufacturing areas--what are we going to train these MBAs to do? My current conclusion to that is we need to teach them more marketing and better marketing-- more scientific. And, we need to teach them creative problem solving techniques. Most business schools are not particularly adept at creativity. We're pretty good at teaching analytical problem solving-- number crunching. We're not that great at teaching our students ways to generate tons of creative ideas, how to choose from among them, and then, how to implement them.

Dann: How will the classroom experience change for students with this kind of emphasis?

Dahan: I assign projects where the students have to compete on teams with each other. They might be creating a new product or proposing a new business model or even a new advertising or promotion scheme. In my current visiting professorship position at Sloan, I'm having my students choose a well-known company and then come up with a plan to help them improve their marketing: it could be anything from product to promotion, distribution to pricing, the business model itself. It's free form. You're going to get a lot of variation from team to team since they'll work on different issues. See, most business schools have this focus: "Here is a case. Here are the facts. What should they do?" There's a little room for creativity in there, but generally, no, the option students have is "Should they go with A, B or C, and why?" The assumption is you're going to be given data and you're going to have to analyze it. Maybe every once in a while we're going to encourage you to go out and get creative in finding data, but even that is rare. I'm talking about even before you're dealing with analysis and data, let's talk about creating alternatives--options for yourself.

Right now, creativity counts for maybe five percent of how students are graded when it comes to solutions they come up with. I believe there should be a greater weighting in grading for creative solutions; it should grow to 20-35 percent--maybe even more in some classes. There also need to be more classes on creativity. That should just be a core value that some business schools adopt.

There should be more connections going out from MBA programs to other parts of universities they are part of: to design schools, engineering schools, medical schools, etc. We're training engineers and scientists how to come up with amazing innovations, but we're not training them on how to bring those things to market. And we're training out MBAs on how to lead an organization and bring things to market, but not on how to understand the creative and scientific types who are generating new ideas. You have a disconnect--just like you do in companies between R&D labs and other parts of companies. Strategic priorities don't get laid out for R&D labs. That seems to happen a lot. We're going to have to deal with this problem.

Dann: And how will professors best teach students creative problem solving approaches?

Dahan: Business schools are set up as functional silos because they are focused on producing cutting edge research that gets published in top journals. You have to delve very deeply into a very narrow silo. There's pretty minimal collaborative research across disciplines, but it's high risk to one's career. That's not really conducive to the kind of integrative creativity I'm talking about. Creativity comes from taking lots of existing ideas and putting them together in new ways and generating unexpected results. It's the "where else would it work?" concept. Unless business schools change the rewards for faculty, it's unclear where [the kind of faculty who can teach creative approaches] will come from.