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Wisconsin’s Business School Bets On A Novel MBA Approach

Wisconsin Business School Dean François Ortalo-Magné

Wisconsin Business School Dean François Ortalo-Magné

When you look back on your best teachers, what do they have in common? Did they inspire you to become something more? Did their questions shake you out of complacency? Did they challenge you to think for yourself? And did they prepare you to overcome the adversity you’d ultimately face?

Like most schools, the University of Wisconsin’s School of Business has wrestled with what truly constitutes great teaching and real learning. Dean François Ortalo-Magné thinks the school has come up with a solution.

Wisconsin has organized its MBA experience into five learning dimensions that infuse consistency and purpose into every activity and course. The program’s framework boasts a non-sexy acronym called KDBIN (pronounced “K-D-BIN”), which stands for Knowing, Doing, Being, Inspiring, and Networking.

HOW KDBIN PLAYS OUT AT WISCONSIN

How differentiating is the novel approach? It’s hard to come up with something entirely new in business education, and much of what KDBIN hopes to achieve occurs in varying  degrees in other MBA programs. But Wisconsin is betting that the framework gives the school a distinct advantage against rivals.

So how does it work? In the Being (B) dimension, students build self-awareness and strengthen character. In orientation, students role play off case studies, teaching them to question assumptions and find common ground. The Inspiration (I) dimension holds a two-fold purpose: To show students their innate potential and encourage them to be an inspiration for others. For example, second-year teams are sent into corporations to work directly with C-suite executives in the corporate finance and investment banking specialization. Along with gaining confidence and experience in their specialty, they also mentor undergraduates on their teams.

Even networking (N) is embedded into the program instead of coming up more naturally after graduation, according to Blair Sanford, the assistant dean responsible for the full-time program’s admissions, student services, and career management. Recently, her department helped bring an alumni speaker to the opening reception for students. “…Right from the start, we infused the inspiration and networking….and it reinforces that life-long partnership with alumni…on the day they arrive on campus.”

‘A HOLISTIC APPROACH FOR MAKING SURE WE’RE HITTING ON ALL ASPECTS OF LEARNING’

Being “intentional” is the basis of KDBIN. While most business schools touch all five dimensions, they don’t necessarily approach them deliberately across the curriculum. A lot of [KDBIN] was already happening,” concedes Elizabeth Odders-White, associate dean of the full-time MBA program. “It wasn’t some big shift that we experienced over the last couple years. It’s a way to put some structure on this…It’s a more holistic approach for making sure we’re hitting on all aspects of learning.”

KDBIN also drives decision-making at Wisconsin. When the faculty was debating whether to install classroom iClickers, they evaluated them by how they’d strengthen the KDBIN outcomes. The dimensions also free the school to appraise tradeoffs. Last year, a student attended a school-sponsored overseas conference where he dug deep into a field and rubbed shoulders with CEOs. Although the student missed two classes, he proclaimed upon his return, “I’ve re-set the objectives for my life.” “It was a tradeoff between an I and a K,” quipped Dean Ortalo-Magné approvingly.

The KDBIN framework began to take shape in 2011, when the French-born Ortalo-Magné was elevated to dean. A Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota who headed Wisconsin’s global real estate master’s program, Ortalo-Magné was looking to foster greater collaboration both inside and outside the business school. He also wanted to build on the school’s strengths, which the included its trustworthy, inspiring, and progressive nature according to research with alumni and employers.

AN IDEA THAT HAD BEEN SWIRLING IN THE DEAN’S SUBCONSCIOUS

Although Ortalo-Magné claims the outlines of KDBIN had been swirling in his subconscious, the actual framework for the approach was inspired by a lunch with an educational specialist early in his tenure. Afterwards, Ortalo-Magné came to an epiphany. “We already do the K and D.” But there was so much more than that.” After gaining buy-in from key players, the school identified outcomes and worked backwards to design assessments and teaching methods to reinforce the “student-centered” nature of the framework. Along with conducting extensive due diligence, the curriculum committee also queried employers and alumni on critical skills.

After defining the outcomes, instructors reviewed core course syllabi. “[We needed to be] thinking very strategically,” Odders-Whites pointed out. While the school looked to push the envelope, they were careful not to reinvent the wheel. Instead, they adopted KDBIN as a common language, a baseline for defining learning objectives, and evaluating performance. “It’s a systematic, comprehensive approach across the school,” says Chris Dakes, the school’s director of educational innovations and learning design.

While the faculty is fond of saying that “all of us are smarter than any of us,” the process wasn’t necessarily smooth for the whole staff. “For some, this was a tweak. But for others, it was a major shift,” Odders-White confesses. “Faculty is used to being autonomous and having complete control over [their] classes. At the same time, we recognized the benefits [of consistent and mutually-supported outcomes across the program.”