Positive Impact Blog

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The importance of field work

Stakeholder research[1] indicates that organizational leaders and business managers cannot be developed without a solid foundation of work experience. In the prevailing North American educational system, it is typical for high school graduates to launch directly into undergraduate education, which is often directly followed with graduate education. Europe and North America differ in the definition of post graduate education, and in particular in the entry requirements of MBA candidates. While in the U.S. work experience is often optional and desirable only, the traditional two-year North American MBA program provides graduates with a very limited first-hand exposure to business and management combined with a significant theoretical experience of business problems. In Europe, the majority of MBA programs are for executives with significant work experience including management experience. They are able to reflect what they learn in the program with their real-life experience at work. The level of discussion and the learning mechanisms are dramatically different with the teacher being much more of a facilitator than a lecturer and with highly innovative program elements that immerse participants into hands on field work across the world, often in developing countries and often as consulting projects for entrepreneurial ventures.

The importance of field work is grounded in the very well established Germanic apprenticeship model. Switzerland, which is highly appreciated for its highly skilled workforce, is still very much relying on this model with more than 75% of its young generation of today choosing to pursue an apprenticeship rather than entering university for studies.

The future management school integrates work experience through reflected field work into its curriculum. Most importantly it foresees creating an experiential year in the second year of undergraduate education, following the historic German model of the “Wanderjahr” (the year of wandering around that forms an integral part of the traditional trade apprenticeship. Chapter 5 provides a detailed example of how undergraduate business and management education could look like at the management school of the future.


[1]            The 50+20 project undertook a stakeholder survey in August 2011 (add reference)

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Trans-disciplinary learning

The common thread among all of these learning environments is the way a subject is approached and therefore what skills are being developed. The innovative thought lies in fundamentally transforming single discipline teaching into trans-disciplinary learning. Rather than teaching marketing, finance, strategy, human resources separately, students will be looking at finding solutions to existing and emerging environmental, societal and economic challenges. Such dilemmas include water scarcity, pandemics, hunger, migration, social support for the elders, climate change, ocean acidification, CO2 emission control, etc.

This approach is fundamentally different than adding a bit of ethics and sustainability into an existing curriculum. Such approaches merely bolt-on responsible and sustainable considerations to a single discipline foundation; what we need is a full transformation of the curriculum to build-in these notions, turning around education by 180 degrees. As a consequence, subject knowledge is acquired predominantly in the context of a real problem, enabling students to anchor it in real stories.

Trans-disciplinary learning is based on the idea that critical competences such as holistic and divergent thinking, systemic understanding, consideration of multiple perspectives and integral decision-making, are critical for future leaders and need to be trained and developed above and beyond transmitting subject expertise. More explicitly, we believe that teaching disciplinary expertise in isolation may well have been the cause for numerous problems the economic system is currently facing. Developing an understanding for unintended side-effects and consequences in the larger system of any given decision in a specific domain requires fluency with systemic thinking and ability to dismantling complexity.

Rising to the challenge of effectively addressing and resolving global and societal challenges requires an understanding of human and societal developmental stages (i.e. from what perspective do stakeholders look at a problem?) and an ease to navigate between the most diverse fields of expertise (hi-tech, sociology, gen-tech, philosophy, psychology, neuro-science, medicine, architecture, engineering, bio-tech, etc.). Leaders for a sustainable future have learned to work with experts of these fields and are able to build bridges and lead a group of subject experts towards sustainable solutions for the world.

An important element of trans-disciplinary learning is the inclusion of relevant stakeholders in the class discussion and practical field work on global issues. This approach assumes that problems can no longer be resolved by applying single-disciplinary perspective. Such a collaborative approach ensures one of the most critical leadership skills for a sustainable future: fluency and ease in considering and shifting between multiple perspectives.