Recasting the MBA – creativity in action

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This is an article written about experiments we’re making in remoulding what an MBA can be in a world worth living in:

A criticism often levelled at that most illustrious of qualifications, the Masters in Business Administration (MBA), is that for all the technical knowledge and skill it imparts on its graduates, it lacks that all-important practical element that comes from doing rather than learning. Any recruiter will tell you an MBA is highly attractive, but only if it is matched by some measure of real-life experience.

This observation is by no means meant as a criticism of the MBA, it simply highlights the limitations of traditional learning as it has been practiced through the ages – learning that engages us on the rational, cognitive level only. Teaching that shares with us existing models of learning, instead of challenging us to create new ones. It’s a system of learning designed for an industrial age, and now we need to fundamentally overhaul it.

It may come as a surprise that this observation comes directly from a voice within the realm of the MBA – from an innovative academic at the UCT Graduate School of Business (GSB), Jonathan Foster-Pedley. Himself an MBA graduate of Ashridge Business School UK, he was also creator of the GSB’s much-lauded Executive MBA programme.

Foster-Pedley has put his alternative views on learning to practice with an elective on the UCT GSB’s MBA programme called Strategy, Design and Creativity. It is unconventional in every way imaginable, from the assessment methods and subject matter to the lecturers and intended outcome.

He describes the purpose of the course as “to recover lost creativity”, and by that he means allowing his students to reconnect with their innate creativity – that which sadly gets eroded in many of us by the time we reach adulthood.

Explains Foster-Pedley, “People tend to think of creativity as something separate, or a special case – it’s not. Creativity exists within each and every one of us, we have just been taught to believe that our rational side is more important.

“People also tend to think that business is about maths and numbers and reason when actually it is all about creativity and innovation – even all the greatest scientific discoveries were founded on a spark of creative thinking,” he remarks.

The course is only one of a handful of similar programmes currently on offer around the world – but Foster-Pedley is adamant that this approach to learning and the emphasis on creativity will become more central, even a core part of many MBA programmes, within the next five to ten years.

If the numbers on his elective are anything to go by, he could be right. The course began four years ago with a class of 15 students and has now increased to 60 – almost half of the UCT GSB’s entire MBA contingent in 2009 – perhaps signalling a growing awareness that creativity and innovation will become an increasingly sought-after attribute in the 21st Century business world.

The course makes use of alternative models of learning in order to challenge the students creatively and get them to interrogate their own creative processes, even if they don’t believe they have any.

Instead of suits lecturing on the wonders of the free market system, or the golden rules of supply and demand, the students are presented with magicians, comedians, artists, sportspeople, entrepreneurs, and actors – accomplished ‘creatives’ who can share insights into their own creative process.

“Creativity doesn’t need to be taught,” says Foster-Pedley. “After all, each of us is already a creative being, but it can be honed and nurtured and encouraged through practice,” he explains.

Again, in contradiction to more conventional teaching methods, the course is more about participation and process than end product. It has its own living, breathing social networking website where the studentOn s write blogs, join in debates and discussions, form groups of common interest and hone their creative muscle by writing haikus and playing games.

Craig Fredericks, a student on this year’s course and trauma surgeon at Groote Schuur Hospital, says he chose the elective in order to “bring structure to my creative thought process” and that Foster-Pedley’s approach can be rather daunting, if exciting, for many students at first.

“A lot of us on the course come from engineering, business and scientific backgrounds so many did feel challenged by the programme initially, but Jon’s teaching methodology is so interactive and his emphasis on experiential learning means we often have to figure out for ourselves what he wants us to do.”

Fredericks says the highlight of the course thus far was “fancy dress day” when everyone had to come to class in costume – and Foster-Pedley showed them all up when he arrived in a full banana suit!

“Jon’s real willingness to put himself out there is something we can all learn from,” says Fredericks.

So, with a course that is self-assessed and self-managed, how does Foster-Pedley manage to keep the students actively engaged and motivated, one may wonder?

“By connecting them to a bigger purpose,” he says – which neatly captures perhaps the most inspired aspect of the entire course.

The students are challenged to “do good” by coming up with ways to give back to society in whatever way they like. This year’s class has plans to build two houses over a weekend in October.

“With this course we are trying to establish a real community, and to get that kind of involvement from people you need to create a purpose that is bigger than a project, a purpose that the students can believe in and contribute to,” he explains.

“It also makes sense to use the energy generated within a community for a social purpose,” he adds.

Indeed, the “Doing Good” aspect is perhaps the thread that binds the entire programme together, focusing the bounds of creative energy it stimulates towards a central, meaningful purpose.

It is also in line with the positioning of the UCT business school under the new directorship of Professor Walter Baets, who has plans to firmly establish the School as a values-driven organisation, both in its actions and teachings.

“We want to create a more socially-responsible type of business person here,” says Baets.

And if an example needs to be set, look no further than Foster-Pedley himself. He is living out the social ideals of his programme in his own life with a personal project that brings executives from the UK to South Africa to work for 15 different NGOs – and has already clocked up 500 days of free work for South African renewal.

Asked about what he would like the outcome his Strategy, Design and Creativity course to ultimately be, he answers, “for students to become confident in themselves – in their own creativity and imagination – and then to feed that confidence back in to their communities”.

“Even if we don’t see the results immediately, I believe we will have done enough to just plant the seed to stimulate creativity and purpose in the students, the effects of which may only become apparent later on.”

If his predictions are correct – and this learning model does become more popular in the years ahead – then perhaps the world of business does have something to genuinely look forward to – a new generation of business practitioners who are creative and socially conscious.

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