A new MBA experience

As a whole, business has become increasingly aware of the role experience plays in the consumption of goods and services.  Pine & Gilmore’s The Experience Economy is one of the earlier and more thoughtful calls for rethinking what we think we are really offering, and what is really being consumed, when someone buys an iPod, takes in a movie, or goes out for a burger.

Taking this approach, it’s valuable to ask “what would make your customer’s interactions with you a transformative experience?” Granted, buying a burger doesn’t need to change anyone. But it could. And why not?

As usual, those of us in management are late to this insight and opportunity. Our MBA programs remain safe from such business ideas because we, as much as any organization, resist ideas that require widespread individual risk and change.

I’ve often wondered what would make the MBA a truly transformative experience–in which students emerge with a new and disciplined approach to thinking and acting that is fundamentally different from how they came in. And this is not unrealistic.  Our closest counterparts, Law Schools and Medical Schools, produce graduates who do think and act in very different ways than when they entered.

How, then, can we replicate the process?  On the one hand, business schools can increase the rigor of their program–focusing on teaching the discipline of thought and execution required of our graduates. This would change the nature of the experience by changing the content of the courses–a necessary change but also more about content than experience.

There is also the design of the entire MBA experience: How MBA students–many in the their late 20s and 30s–go to school, where they go to school, and how they interact with one another, their professors, and the schools community of administrators, staff, leadership, and extended community. And while most MBA programs will give lip-service to the rigor and relevance of their coursework, they would not consider changes in the fundamental delivery of the content.  They are stuck thinking that the value of the MBA is in the course content (the product) and not how that product is consumed (the experience).

All of this became crystal clear when I had the chance to visit Bainbridge Graduate Institute (BGI) in mid-June. I was there thanks to the invitation and persistence of Paul Hudnut, who teaches at BGI as well as at Colorado State.  Bainbridge Graduate Institute is one of the early pioneers that offers an MBA program with emphasis on sustainability, and triple-bottom line is the language they speak. While this is a very important part of BGI’s mission and the identity of its students, it hides one of the more compelling and unique aspects of the place.

From the website:

Our MBA in Sustainable Business is a 2- or 3-year, part-time program designed for working individuals. Students and faculty meet in intensive classroom sessions for a 4-day weekend once a month, October through June, at the IslandWood environmental learning center on Bainbridge Island, 35 minutes by ferry from downtown Seattle. The academic year is kicked off with a 5-day orientation at Channel Rock, our eco-retreat center on Cortes Island in British Columbia.

 The “campus” is a beautiful environmental retreat with great accomodations  (and in truly modern business fashion, outsourced to reduce committed capital). Student are on-site only four days a month, but for those four days are there completely.

The MBA program combines distance learning with monthly, intensive, face-to-face classroom sessions.  Students build a strong, cooperative learning community with each other, the faculty and staff.

Granted, I happen to come upon the students when they were in the fire lodge, gathered around a campfire watching the graduating class put on skits, sing songs, and pass the mantle (t-shirt) of leadership to the next year’s class. I hadn’t seen such a display of a total immersion organization since summer camp.  But then the next morning I judged the presentations of their new business ventures for Paul’s entrepreneurship class and was delighted with the quality of and commitment to the ideas.

In rethinking the MBA–as an experience rather than as a set of topics–I left Bainbridge with the realization that transformative experiences can tap the depth rather than the length of the immersion. Business students, faculty, and staff may get more out of 4 days of complete immersion interspersed with time away, online, and in reflection than they get from 4 weeks of routine lectures.

3 thoughts on “A new MBA experience

  1. Well said, sir. Nice to see you blogging again! BGI reinforces that what students learn is tied closely to where they learn and with whom they learn. It is a different paradigm than that of most B-schools. I hope my students learned as much as I did from the experience!

  2. Andrew,
    Thanks for this post! I’m a big fan of BGI too and last year, had the chance to visit their Islandwood campus… though I wish I’d visited during one of their intensives!
    Since you’re in Northern California, I’d like to extend an invitation for you to visit my school as well — Presidio School of Management. We’re a lot like BGI in that (1) we’re an MBA program that fully integrates sustainability principles into every course; (2) we also use a cohort format; (3) face-to-face classes are also just a four-day weekend once a month and (4) our students are mostly mid-career professionals (average age mid-30’s) and are mission- and values-driven.
    Reuters recently wrote an article about us! http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20070612/us_nm/usa_environment_mba_dc_1
    Let me know if you’d like to check out our classes – I’d love to meet and host you, and introduce you to some faculty and students.

  3. Thanks for giving this detailed snapshot from such a short visit! I am a BGI student. I am often amazed that such a school exists; it is not easy to create “outer” versions of the inner transformative experience that humans crave. I feel optimistic about the effect BGI students can have on business practices and the role of business in society.

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