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
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
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.