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Robert J. Dolan is the dean of the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan.A professor of marketing, he was a chaired faculty member and administrator at Harvard[…]

The dean explains how he shaped the Ross School of Business.

Question: How does the Ross School integrate real world business problems in the classroom?

Robert Dolan: Well, there’s a number of ways. I guess I’ll start out by talking about the way that we do it is maybe as a little bit distinctive among business schools. I think the signature element of our school, our MBA program in particular, compared to others, is what we call action based learning. 

So right now, for example, all of our 425 first year MBA students would not be found in Ann Arbor.  They would be scattered around the globe in about 90 teams, working on real world problems. So what we’ve done to try to differentiate our students and really provide value added was probably about 10 years ago, slightly before I got to the school, we instituted what we called, this map project, which we call multidisciplinary action projects. So we, since, built that up and really invested in it as our point of differentiation. 

And so, we source about a 120 projects a year from around the world of three different types. We have corporate ones, which would be like the Fortune 500 company, entrepreneurial, and nonprofit ones. And then, after the students take the required curriculum from August through the end of February, in March and April the only thing they do is one of these projects. So right now, we have, as I was saying, we have all of our first year MBAs out working on these real world projects around the globe so about half of them are outside the United States. And our thinking on that has been that, clearly, business schools have to be close to the world of practice. And you can get there a couple of ways. 

One is, one way is to try to import the business world into your school via, for example, case studies or, as we have done recreating a trading floor that you’d find here in New York or another finance center in the world and bring that into the school. 

The other way is you can take your students and your faculty and put them out in the world of practice. And so, that’s what we’ve done, really, to try to distinguish our program. And it’s a really great way of educating students and also a great way for us, as the school, to see what the interesting problems are out there in the world.  Because in the course of having the students do these projects, we probably visit about a 150 companies a year to ask them if we could do a project with them, of something that’s really salient for them today. 

So we get a pretty good sense of sort of what’s on people’s mind by the kinds of things they would like our students to work on. So, I think that injection of our students and our faculty out into the world of practice on a full-time basis for two months of the required curriculum in the first year, and we’re doing this over and over and over. And so, we’re able to actually get a look at some problems in detail. 

So, for example, a few years back, C. K. Prahalad, who’s on our faculty, decided he really want to take a look at the issue of “Can businesses profitably served the poor of the world?” And so, the basis for his getting a look at that question was to do 10 map projects with companies, mostly nonprofit organizations, around the world.  And that really was the raw data which became his book, “The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid.” 

So, I think, in the way that some other schools would try to have their connection with the world of practice be by bringing in outside speakers and making sure the faculty were bringing current events into the classroom, we do all that the same as any other leading business schools would. But I think this is what’s really kind of been distinctive for us. And it’s really been terrific in terms of a way for us to see what the interesting problems are in the world for our faculty to be out there.  And also, for our students, really, to be solving real world problems and all their ambiguity and uncertainty that, I think, has really been the hallmark of the school. 

Question: Are international satellite schools a necessity for business schools?

Robert Dolan: Well, I think, it is necessary to have a global presence in someway or another. And, you know, you can do it in a number of ways and various schools have chosen different routes.  Harvard Business School, for example, has chosen to set up research centers all around the world.  Northwestern has chosen to do educational programs in cooperation with other schools. 

What we’ve done so far is really not to engage in partnerships with other, with other schools around the world because we find that you, sometimes, don’t have a perfect alignment of the agenda. So at the moment, what we have is a, we have a research center in India. We have a global MBA program that we run in Korea and China. And the major way that we go global through these map projects and other global projects courses. So I think, I personally believe it’s really important for the students to experience a particular culture.  I was in India last December and I think, just what you can learn from intelligent observation of what’s going on is really important. 

So we intend to be as a platform for more of our action based learning work outside the United States. We’ll be establishing more kind of small bricks and mortar investments. I don’t think it’s particularly useful to be going to another country and staying in a classroom and just studying in the classroom.  What’s important, I think, is to get immersed into the local economy. So, whereas some schools are going global via setting up executive MBA programs around the world, I haven’t seen much value in that to the students who are back on the home campus. 

So our strategy is much more to figure out ways to get our full-time students, who would be enrolled in Ann Arbor, to get them out and have a global experience. So we’re expanding on the map project activity. And, I think, to have a presence in country to help us with the sourcing of those projects and to help us with admissions of students from those countries to our campus in Ann Arbor.  Those are useful investments that we’ll be making and expanding over the next few years. 

Question: What’s the best way to teach business?     

Robert Dolan: I didn’t stay doing the case method for 21 years if I wasn’t a proponent of it in some ways. But I think a sole reliance on it can be a limitation. And that’s why when we were trying to figure out, okay, how do we really differentiate our school, it’s not that we don’t do any case studies.  They are a tremendous device for developing students, problem solving skills, which are really valuable. 

But on the other hand, when you talk to companies, as I spent the majority of my first year doing as dean, going out and talking to companies and say, look, what really distinguishes you’re great people from your good people. It was never, well, so and so was a great problem solver, it was always, well, so and so is the person who is able to see things that other people can’t see. And he’s also the person that when everybody else is saying, oh my gosh, what are we going to do, we have nothing that will possibly be able to do to solve this issue, he or she is the one who’s able to say, well, look, actually we have, there’s three different things we could do. 

So trying to think about, well, what do you, how could you develop the skills that go on the front end of a case study, that you developed the students’ ability to make sense of the situation and then really frame the problem. And so, that’s what we’ve tried to do with our action based learning projects, where, as we send students out for a two month project, there is no case. We give them a one page description of the problem. And many times, the problem is when you really look at it, it’s saying, well, go help this company figure out how they could do better. So we deliberately leave the job of defining what the issues are and providing the students the space to really find the opportunity in the situation. 

So I’m a believer that the three fundamental ways that you can think about education, they’re being a professor upfront, lecturing, telling you what he or she has inside their head. Secondly, some case studies in which you are in discussion for and also an action based learning. Combing those 3 in the right way is what I think is the right way to do both MBA and BBA education.             

Question: How have you created a community of learning at Michigan?

Robert Dolan: Well, that’s, I guess that’s my, what I think of as my primary job. And, I guess a couple, well, a few kind of everyday ways and a few maybe a little bit kind of more abstract, I guess, abstract ways that I try to do it. But, I mean, in terms of trying to create a learning community, one of the things we try to do is create a physical space to accommodate a learning community.  And, so in our new building, what we have is its all built around, what we call, the winter garden, which is where about 450 people will be seated from about, gets going about 10:00 in the morning and it goes ‘til about 1:00 at night. And so, that’s sort of the heart and soul of our community.  And I think, so that’s one, is to have the physical infrastructure there. 

The second thing is, from the beginning, to be telling students about what their job is at the school. That, you know, our first test when we’re deciding whether to admit you to the school or not is “Can you learn in this environment?” So we don’t do you any favors if you don’t have the analytical skills to deal with statistics courses or the business economics courses and so forth. But we’re fortunate enough that we can fill the school up 10 times over with people who can learn effectively in our environment. 

So we get to create a situation where we’re really choosing the students to join our environment based upon what we think they can teach the rest of us. So the idea of having a diverse student body in, you know, gender, race, national origin, what kind of activities they’ve been involved in in the past, it really gives us the opportunity to think not of having 180 teachers, which is how many tenured/tenured track faculty we have but if we think of ourselves as having 3,000 teachers, because that’s what our student body plus our faculty together. So I’m always trying to stress that we are a learning community. When we talked about building our new facility, it was never about we’re trying to build a great teaching facility, we’re trying to create a great learning facility by having 3,000 people who really have a teaching burden for the rest of us.  So those will be two. 

I guess the third one is you’re always trying to attract people who are going to bring excitement and intellectual curiosity into our classrooms in our environment. 

And then, I think the fourth thing is that you’re really trying to create something which has a high degree of excitement to it, that we’re always out there, pushing new boundaries. And we had our perceptive MBA students in a couple of weeks ago and I was talking to them about what I thought was some of the different things about the school that maybe they wouldn’t see by reading our brochures. 

And I told them the story about when I was on a panel of three deans, talking to new PhDs and young faculty members from around the country about what does a dean do. And it was, you know, it’s kind of an interesting question because faculty, typically, haven’t really seen it very much up close and say that they don’t know. So the two deans ahead of me spoke about, well, basically, what we have to do is we have to manage budgets and we have to make sure the priorities of the university are aligned with the school and, you know, which is something that I have to do but it’s not how I think about my job. And so, I told them that, what I said to the audience was, well, how many Neil Young fans do we have in the audience? And there were lots of Neil Young fans. So I said, well, you know, one of Neil’s songs on Heart of Gold DVD is about going out with his dog named King. And he said he loved his dog named King because he wasn’t afraid to jump it off the truck in high gear. 

And I thought, well, you know, in some sense, that’s maybe the most important thing that a dean can do, is create an environment in which you can take sensible risks and really bring so much excitement and energy into the day-to-day life of the school and, you know, I had a finance professor come to me a couple of years ago and said, “I’d like to create a new course on sustainable finance.” And I said, “Well, what is it?”  He said, “Well, I’m not sure,” he said, “But it’s something which is going to marry all of these concepts of sustainability with the world of finance.” And so, we said, “Yeah, we’ll go make that bet.”  And so, I think it’s the idea of being willing to do some experiments, being smart enough to come back around a couple of years later and look at the flowers you planted and see whether they’re blooming or not. But, I think, to try to create a place that it’s, the academic world is great in the sense that, you know, the cost of an experiment is fairly low. And so, we have to be creating a situation where we’re going to go try things that you wouldn’t be able to try other places. So I think it’s always trying to inject that sense of excitement into the day-to-day kind of learning activities.  

Recorded on: April 13, 2009