The Buzzfeedication of Business School

Markus Giesler is a marketing professor and chair of the marketing department at the Schulich School of Business

Markus Giesler is a marketing professor and chair of the marketing department at the Schulich School of Business

Sometimes industries take a really long time to change. Consider all the terrible taxi rides we took until we had Uber. Or add the time you spent in overpriced hotel rooms until we had Airbnb.

Here is another one. Until recently, the Schulich School of Business was one of 4,000 business schools transferring millions of dollars of royalty fees every year to Harvard, Darden, INSEAD, Ivey and other schools to license their business case studies. For a long time, Schulich’s leadership saw this as a viable investment because, after all, case-based learning is thought of as the most effective way to educate future business leaders. But when I took over as chair of our marketing department last summer, I wondered if is this really so?

On the one hand, lectures got nothing on cases. Cases enable perspective-taking, drive inspiring discussions and playful competition, and they turn the classroom into a thriving marketplace of ideas. Bonus: They feed the fantasy that “we too can be like Harvard.”


On the other hand, the case logic perpetuates an obscene monopoly. Similar to how the food industry has convinced families that eating large amounts of sugared corn in the morning is a healthy way to start the day, case vendors have convinced their own rival schools that only case-based teaching can create tomorrow’s business leaders.

But. firm-based leadership, the kind of leadership that cases nurture, is very different from the platform-based leadership that today’s marketplace demands. The companies that I work with are getting tired of hiring MBAs who think and act like Coca-Cola, GE, or Emirates. They crave platform MBAs – leaders who think and act like Uber, Netflix, and Airbnb. Rapidly growing, shape shifting, and oscillating between hardcore analytics and social activism, data and design.

Is organizing business school like BuzzFeed a way to create such platform MBAs? To find out, I first had to reinvent myself as a platform professor. I began with my own blog and fostered syndication by half a dozen media platforms. Then I started blogging and TEDx talking about my research on big design and how it matters until the blog hit six million unique visitors last year and the TEDx talk hit 200,000 views. Together with my colleague Ela Veresiu, I then created an industry-based research think tank called the Big Design Lab. We forged partnerships with several dozen companies and government organizations that are all using big design now.


Creating a platform is very different from traditional business school logic. Normally, professors publish in academic journals and teach. In sharp contrast, creating a global community of big designers is a daring entrepreneurial project – making your top-tier scholarship change how things are done in boardrooms, newsrooms, courtrooms, and even living rooms. In short, it’s a venture.

But what about classrooms? To explore this question, I next turned one of Schulich’s most sought-after MBA elective courses “Customer Experience Design” from a case-based into a venture-based course, forged a partnership with another powerful platform, the American Marketing Association (AMA), and gave my students the following task: use the AMA and other resources to create a platform around a customer experience idea or problem of your choice.

It is important to recognize that this new course wasn’t case-free. Instead, cases were used and in fact generated to build layers of managerial knowledge to be tested through platform creation. For example, “IKEA Invades America,” a great story about what it takes to translate a Swedish furniture experience into the North American market – that’s a case. Translating, as my students did, 15 unique customer experience design problems and insights into narratives that are read, debated, and shared by tens of thousands of virtual students and companies around the world – and then getting hired by one of them as an expert for solving them – that’s a venture. So is the act of becoming the American Marketing Association’s most read web column of 2015.


What’s the lesson here? Similar to how the firm-based marketplace commodified the lecture and established the case, the platform-based marketplace may soon commodify the case and establish a new learning experience that I call the venture. Ventures aren’t the opposite of cases but rather a powerful way to integrate and build new insights and markets around them.

By providing a learning experience that is both a knowledge- and a platform-creation process, ventures can help nurture platform MBAs. The shift from the firm-based to the platform-based marketplace will fundamentally change the roles of business schools, professors, and students. Traditional market leaders like HBS may face new competition and find it more difficult than smaller schools to tailor their model to the changing marketplace. Unlike HBS, in turn, smaller schools may find it harder to attract powerful platform professors. As with all marketplace evolution, there will be winners and losers. At Schulich, we will strive for the former.

Markus Giesler is a marketing professor and chair of the marketing department at the Schulich School of Business

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