The Bigger Picture

Specialised knowledge is no longer enough.
Economist StaffMay 8, 2003

Conventional wisdom has it that specialisation is good. But for someone trying to navigate an increasingly competitive, global economy, manage an increasingly diverse workforce, and serve an increasingly international bunch of customers, what is (increasingly) needed is not just specialised know-how, but its opposite: an integrated world view. This is easier conceived than delivered. While teaching select bits of knowledge, like finance or marketing or strategy, is fairly straightforward, teaching how to integrate all this knowledge is less clear.

Executive-education courses have tended to focus more on teaching a suite of courses that make managers experts on a range of subjects and less on tying these strands of knowledge together. But a number of programmes that emphasize the synthesis of knowledge have sprung up in recent years. Probably the most far-reaching is The Executive Program (TEP) at the Darden Graduate School of Business at the University of Virginia, a four-week course that stresses the many faces of business and the importance of approaching them with an eye to the big picture.

Integration is central to the TEP, permeating not just how the program is taught, but how it is designed. The curriculum is the product of a six-person faculty team that spends up to eight months before the start of classes working to link their individual courses into a seamless whole. Knowledge gained in one class is designed to build on what is learned in others, so that classes as diverse as marketing, corporate strategy or business processes work together. “Each class leverages the next one — so one plus one adds up to much more than three,” says Brandt Allen, the dean of executive education at Darden.

This same faculty group then teaches all four weeks of the programme, taking meals with participants and holding open office hours throughout the term. Beyond this, TEP stresses that things external to office life — physical fitness, balancing work and personal life — are key elements in successful leadership. “Most students will do something like this only once in their lives,” says Mr Allen, “So this is a chance to take stock of their personal lives as well as their professional ones. Because, ultimately, both are linked.”

The executive MBA programme at Notre Dame’s Mendoza Business School also sees integration as at the core of learning. Each term, students are required to take a class called The Weave. The class introduces no new substantive material, focusing instead on thinking through the relationships among the different disciplines through case-study style discussions of current topics. A discussion of Enron, for instance, could draw on knowledge learned from classes in accounting, finance, management and corporate governance and (perhaps especially in this case) business ethics. A key component of The Weave is the facilitator, who tries to pull together the different fields of study. “It takes a multi-talented person with a broad range of experience to lead this class,” says Barry Van Dyke, head of degree programmes, adding that the faculty members chosen to lead The Weave are those who wear “many different hats” and so are accustomed to viewing problems through a variety of prisms.

By contrast, Wharton’s Executive Development Programme (EDP), a two-week course aimed at managers who are about to take on a broader range of responsibilities, tries to synthesise knowledge making participants get their hands dirty on a project. The EDP uses a computer simulation, designed by a local consulting firm to mesh with the programme curriculum, to provide students with a way to test the effects of various management styles, approaches and lessons learned in coursework. Teams of students are put in charge of a virtual company and take daily strategic decisions in a simulated marketplace. The computer simulation is designed to incorporate market situations beyond students’ control, in what Rita McGlone, Director of Senior Management Programmes, calls a learning laboratory.

A daily debrief, the so-called Social Systems Workshop, is held later in the day and focuses on how the team works together during the simulation. Discussion centers on human issues that had an effect on decision-making, such as team dynamics and leadership. “It gives students a time to reflect on how coursework relates to their decisions, and how and why they made the decisions they did,” adds Ms McGlone. Those that come out on top are more likely to be the executives who can see past the trees and take in the whole forest.