Inside The MBA Program Of The Year

MBA curriculum reviews and their subsequent updates are a dime a dozen. Typically, a school will do what it should have done years ago: add more experiential learning to the MBA experience, toss in more business analytics, and put more resources into leadership development.

Washington University’s Olin Business School took a more radical approach: Olin brought the entire class of newly arrived students on a 38-day, round-the-world learning experience in Washington, D.C., Barcelona, Spain, and Shanghai, China. To pull it off, the school required some faculty and all the students to show up for the program a semester early in late June. What’s more, Olin did not increase its MBA tuition to pay for the immersion or the extra semester. Instead, the school ate all the costs, flying students to the three locales, putting them up in hotels, feeding them, and arranging meaningful coursework, assignments and projects in each location.

The bold and novel nature of the new curriculum caused Poets&Quants to name Olin’s revamp the MBA Program of the Year in 2019. In this on-campus Livestream discussion, Dean Mark Taylor, Professor of Management Practice and Assistant Dean Samuel Chun, and Professor of Organizational Behavior Andrew Knight discuss the changes and how the first iteration of the program played out.

John A. Byrne: So what informed the change and how did you come up with the fact that you were going to send off the entire class on a 38-day learning experience around the world?

Dean Mark Taylor: Well, I think we wanted to provide something that was bold and innovative. It was really going to be a game-changer in terms of developing our MBA. We like to think of ourselves as a global school. Even though we are here at the heart of the United States, we actually do have a global mindset as part of what we call our pillars of excellence. So we were really thinking about how we could imbue that right from the start of our MBA program. So almost from the first week, students traveled from here to Washington D.C, where they were briefed on Geopolitics and Global Business and then we actually sent them out for not only a classroom experience, but actually experiential projects, consultancy projects in the field in Europe and then in China. It was really an intense orientation by disorientation. We’re really getting the students thinking with a global mindset right from the beginning.

Byrne: Traditionally, there is a belief in academia that you have to teach all the core subjects, accounting, finance, marketing and strategy, and then students can apply those concepts to the real world with some form of experiential learning. You kind of reversed the process and threw people right into it. What was that like?

Samuel Chun: It was exhilarating, and there’s a lot of reason behind that. What you do is you give students a general framework that enables them to actually penetrate their courses more deeply when they get back on campus and take the core courses in accounting, marketing, and finance. It also gives students a common language that they can use from the get-go. And it’s a nice setup.

Byrne: As I understand it, you also organized teams of students that leveraged their backgrounds and skills to offset the fact that they didn’t go through the core. If you had a person who had a background in accounting or finance, you put them together in a way to allow them to bring that expertise to whatever project they worked on. So on some level, they didn’t need to go through semester-long courses on all the core basics to add value to a given project.

Chun: Yes, most MBAs come in with some kind of experience. I think team composition is something we’ve always took very seriously through all our programs. But I think it was especially critical for this particular experience.

Byrne: And the curriculum revamp is informed on four pillars of excellence. Mark, you alluded to it. Global is one of them obviously, but entrepreneurship and experiential learning are key pillars as is values based and data driven decision making. How did all four of those pillars come to play in the global immersion?

Andrew Knight: So we start out here in St Louis and the students begin with a course focused on values-based and data-driven decision making. And so it really establishes that as a cross-cutting way of thinking about projects that they carry with them throughout each location. The experiential part was a core component of the program. Students are learning by engaging in project-based experiences. They’re learning about different domains of business through those projects. And so it is a core component as they move across the globe. Global is obviously central. And finally with entrepreneurial, a few of the project experiences that they had were specifically oriented towards engaging in some of the skills that you need to be successful as an entrepreneur. And so whether that’s a project working with wineries in Barcelona or a project thinking about how a St. Louis-based entreprenerial compamny that makes and sells donuts would enter the Shanghai market, each of those involved really flexing the students entrepreneurial muscles.

Byrne: Mark, what do you think you learned through the first iteration of the global immersion?

Taylor: Well, I think we had a couple of situations before that. We were mindful of engaging our current MBA students up to the top class and they helped us really think about how we would do this. So we had some pilot studies and sent students to Barcelona and Shanghai. They gave us some initial feedback and they told us how much they enjoyed that global immersion experience and how the group had bonded even though they were in short pilots. So it wasn’t a completely first run through but having done the whole run together, we found out a few things like making sure that work is compartmentalized. So the work that was assigned say in Barcelona should be finished there and didn’t even hang over when students arrived in Beijing or Shanghai, right? So it’s managing the workload. We probably gave too heavy work a load to students the first time. So perhaps we will add a little bit more time for cultural and social activities next time. But by and large, we were pretty happy with the first iteration.

Byrne: And students benefitted in two important ways: they went through an accelerated development process by having been thrown togetner in this unusual experience and they gained deep and enduring bonds with each other. Students quickly gained a level of maturity and learning, more quickly than they otherwise would if they just threw themselves into a traditional classroom on campus. And then the other advantage came in the deep bonds that were formed among the students traveling together over 38 days in three different locations, riding buses, staying in hotels, having dinner and lunch and breakfast together, working on these assignments in teams. I hear that they came back to St Louis and the second years wondered, “Well, what is this going on here?” It is such a close-knit group.

Taylor: That’s absolutely true. It’s the idea of people traveling together for several weeks around the world and working with each other 24/7–actually not going home. Perhaps we give them a little bit too much work, but actually working together did provide that bonding experience. And as you say, they arrive on campus a semester earlier than usual. So they’re actually getting this intensive bootcamp as well for several weeks.

By the time they get back here in late August or early September, they’re actually ready for it, way ahead of the game in terms of starting the rest of the program and interviewing for internships. The bonding of the group was important but also it shifts the dynamics of the group because everybody in this program is in a foreign country at some point. And about 40% of the students were non domestic, with no particular dominance of any one particular nationality, Europeans, Asians and so forth. So in different countries, the dynamics led to different elements of leadership. So I think that was also a very interesting element of the cultural intelligence, the cultural awareness and the bonding of the group.

Byrne: Another part of the boldness of it frankly, is you decided you were going to move up and bolt on a semester ahead of the traditional start. So you actually asked professors to come off their vacations or their sabbaticals or their research projects and show up early along with the students. And even more than that, and this is what I really found fascinating, is you foot the bill for this extraordinary experience. I think there were a lot of people out there who were saying, “Oh, that’s great. “I’d love to go on a global immersion trip, “but my God, it’s going to cost me X amount of money.” In fact, Olin paid the cost of the entire immersion.

Taylor: That’s absolutely true. So we didn’t significantly increase fees from one year to the next year when we introduced this global immersion. And that’s because we really didn’t want to deter people from coming on the program. We have a comprehensive scholarship program here as well to help students who find difficulty in funding the fees. But at the moment, we don’t offer stipends. So this is a way of offering a stipend that actually provides a great return on investment worth $20,000, something like that.

Byrne: That’s fantastic. Now Sam, bring me through the Barcelona experience. You were there. Give us a real sense of what the students experienced on that trip.

Chun: Well, it’s a blend of I think three things. Clearly, there’s course components. We do have content that we have to get through and it’s a general management bootcamp in Barcelona, getting people thinking in terms of strategy, execution and how to actually lead these things. The content is placed tactically in the mornings. In the afternoons, we have experiential visits to wineries and distributors to get an understanding of how these businesses operate. We’ve got coaching and development sessions on alternating days that basically keep students on track with projects, but also helps them develop personal skills, consultative skills, business acumen skills on the fly. And in the evenings we dine at, what is it, 9:00 p.m? These guys eat late in Barcelona.

Byrne: And Sam, I heard that you were starting classes at 8:00 a.m. Is that true?

Chun: We tried and we quickly overwhelmed the hotel waitstaff who loathed us because we got into work at six instead of seven a.m.. So we were like the most hated people on hotel premises until we switched that right midstream.

Byrne: But it sounds to me like Olin put togethe a nice mix of classroom time, one-on-one coaching, trips, projects and assignments, and then cultural visits to get a sense of the culture of the place.

Chun: And these are meaningful trips. It’s not just going for a winery tour.

Byrne: Give us an example.

Chun: Well, how does this family actually think about what it wants to do with wine? One of the things we assume is that everyone wants volume growth. And some of these families just say, “No, we’re doing quality. It’s this many cases and we’re not going to do any more than that.” And then the students have to kind of understand this and cope with that at a very different level. It is in fact values-based, not yours, but the company’s owners.

Byrne: Right. And the assignment for the students essentially was what?

Chun: At that point, it was really understanding what these wineries wanted to do to expand pretty much into the United States. So Catalan has an interesting problem. There’s politics there right now. The actual sales of Catalan Wineries are impacted by this. So a lot of these guys are looking for global diversification. And the United States is a great market. Some of them are in it, but I think we undersell Cava in this country. We focus more on champagne and the bubbles that we get from California.

Byrne: Andrew, you accompanied the students in every location: D.C. where there were a lot of lectures and classes at the Brookings Institution because of a longstanding partnership that Washington University has with Brookings, Barcolona, and then of course, Shanghai where you spent 17 days and I think you also took a trip to Beijing. Tell me a little bit about the Chinese experience.

Knight: So as you mentioned, the students began by visiting Beijing before they went into Shanghai. And the focus in Shanghai was building upon the foundations, the general management course in Barcelona with a tilt more specifically to thinking about strategy, first of all, and second of all, operations. And so the strategy course was built around thinking about how someone from the United States might locate a new retail outlet in Shanghai. The students did a lot of work out in the community, boots on the ground, scouting locations and thinking critically.

Byrne: New locations for the stores to be planted in Shanghai?

Knight: That’s checked. And even just doing almost anthropological observations of convenient stores. What are the differences between how convenient stores and retail outlets operate in Shanghai compared to what the students may be more familiar with in their own home countries? And so there was a big element of thinking critically about how business operations differ across different societies, but also people operations, how people manage not just their employees, but also their customers. And so that was a big initial focus of the first course in Shanghai. The second one focused on operations. And there, the students had wonderful opportunities to visit and see in depth some cutting-edge approaches to manufacturing and textiles. And for some of the students who may not have had those experiences before, it was incredibly eye-opening to see how many of the goods that we have here in the United States or elsewhere are produced and distributed from China.

We had class at different times of the day. I think I often had students at the tail end of the day. But I think what was different about this experience was that it wasn’t built around class times per se. The educational experience was so different from a traditional class-based model. Instead, the students are learning and working with one another at very different times of the day. In some sense, they’re living like a global business person would live. So sometimes after dinner we might come into a hotel and we’d see a team of students working together in the hotel. And so the rhythm of the day, I think really was more akin to what a global business person might live as opposed to more of a class-based model.

Byrne: And in addition to what they were doing, some were actually preparing or interviewing for internships, right? So Olin also brought along a contingent of career management people from the Weston Career Center.

Taylor: Absolutely.

Byrne: I should point out, Mark, that you’ve made some changes, given the spread of the coronavirus in China. Want explain what you’re gonna do next time?

Taylor: Sure. So we have a global program that is getting hit by global shocks now again. So we’re kind of practicing what we teach and we’re really acting nimbly and pivoting and maybe even shifting the programs. So some of the program will remain the same. The students will go from here to Washington, D.C., for the international briefing, then they’ll go to Barcelona. But then, last year we went from Barcelona to Beijing to Shanghai and this year we’re going from Barcelona to Paris and then from Paris to Lima, Peru.

Byrne: That’s quite a trip. So you’re actually adding another major city. Paris is a special place.

Taylor: Yes, and they’ll do some business there as well. But that will also be a cultural visit as well. The European cultural visits and the bulk of the extras will be in South America, in Lima.

Byrne: For the trips, are you partnering with local universities and putting the students up in dorms or you have other accommodations?

Taylor: We have other accommodations and are really playing to our strengths. This is round about 100 students, maybe even a little bit more. And therefore they can A) bond together and B) the logistics work for us. We can actually call up a hotel and say, “Do you have 100 rooms available? “Do you have 100 seats on this flight going to Lima, Peru?” That works well for us.

Byrne: Actually, that’s the other remarkable thing about it. You were able to pull this major undertaking off in little more than 12 months after the faculty approved the curriculum changes. And that’s amazing in and of itself.

Taylor: The faculty and I should say the staff have been absolutely outstanding in putting this together for the students. We talked about the bonding of the students on this trip, but also it’s a bonding between the faculty and the staff and the students together as well. So it’s been actually a really positive experience for the whole school.

Byrne: Well, thank you for sharing that experience with us. Congratulations to everyone at Olin for pulling that off and not only this but the rest of the pieces of the new curriculum.


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