May 17, 2006
What this world needs most, in the eyes of Robert Joss, dean of the Graduate School of Business (GSB), is better management. There is virtually no social or economic problem, he argues, that isn't, when you get down to it, a management problem.
"How do you get humans to work with each other?" Joss asks.
"Our faculty have degrees in economics, psychology, engineering, math, politics and statistics. Every one could have a top job in their discipline. But they chose the GSB because they like the idea of applying their discipline to the challenges of management."
The existence or absence of social justice also has become a question of management, on the level both of nation-states and organizations, he said. Chances are that societies that work well and fairly are well managed; those that don't, aren't.
So it behooves anyone interested in social justice to get interested in management, said Jim Phills, director of the Business School's Center for Social Innovation.
In the 1980s, "business was the enemy" for many people, he said. "What turned it around was the tech boom, the tremendous accumulation of wealth. Suddenly there were young people with fortunes, passions and resources. Entrepreneurial zeal was turned toward education and the environment, especially here [at Stanford].
"The MBA students of today want to change the world, build something, have an impact, be actively engaged."
The best business students—the ones who come to the Stanford Graduate School of Business—know that changing the world is no simple matter. It may require hanging out in dangerous places, both literally and intellectually. That is why the school's leadership considers it both desirable and necessary that they know how to cross borders, speak many languages and use a multitude of tools. That is what multidisciplinarity is all about.
Changing the way the world is managed is a multifaceted operation. The list of moving parts is nearly endless. It includes not only all the disciplines Joss enumerated, but the skills of negotiation and leadership and vision, of distinguishing sensible options from impractical ones and of knowing how not to repeat mistakes.
"Change happens through organizations," Phills said. "Management is about how to develop and operate effective, innovative leadership."
Teaching and learning these skills requires not only classroom time but experience. The average Business School student enters the two-year program after having worked for around four years. His or her professors have not necessarily had the same work experience. Unlike many medical school professors, who are doctors, or law school professors, who are lawyers, most Business School professors and their colleagues at other business schools are not practitioners.
The job of the business student, then, is to draw from as many places as possible.
Business School leaders have made it clear the school is a full partner in university President John Hennessy's effort to make Stanford one of the world's centers of multidisciplinary research and learning. It has created a multidisciplinary innovation fund to pay for a broad range of projects, courses and infrastructure. Dozens of the school's faculty are working with the university's four multidisciplinary initiatives.
The school also is taking a cue from its longtime executive education program, and this summer will launch a four-week management course, the Summer Institute for Entrepreneurship, for graduate students outside business. The program is based on the idea that there are few fields that couldn't benefit from instruction in management.
In some ways, this anticipates the report of the Commission on Graduate Education, which recommended that Stanford develop summer programs for graduate students so they can interact with colleagues and faculty members from outside their field.
With financial support from the President's Office and several of the university's schools, the institute will bring together students from medicine, engineering and the social and natural sciences and teach them some of the analytical and practical skills associated with running a business.
The first cohort will be nearly all from Stanford, and nearly all of those are from the schools of Engineering or Medicine. Their objectives include developing and marketing medical technologies, providing health care services to underserved communities, marketing their own inventions and setting up energy and resources consulting firms.
Along similar cross-training lines, Joss said he would like to see a series of brief "101" courses that would enable business students to acquire, say, enough knowledge about genetics or computer science to capably lead a biotech company. Inversely, courses could instruct science students in the basics of accounting and management.
A similar proposal also came from the Commission on Graduate Education, which urged cross-disciplinary training but cautioned against a "dumbed-down version of what [a department] would otherwise provide to its own students."
That will be one of the major challenges for Stanford's dean of graduate education, Joss said, a new position that also was recommended by the commission.
"How can we help graduate students make connections? What if a law student wants to learn about genetics? The genetics professor won't want to take the law student. And the same is true for us; how do we teach them management? But we should help law and business students learn about science. They don't need degrees, just instruction. But you don't just flip a switch."
One of the reasons such courses have been difficult to organize until now is that the Business School, like the Law School, had its own calendar, which did not conform to that of the rest of the university. Classes generally are held on a Monday-and-Thursday or a Tuesday-and-Friday schedule, which often makes it impossible for graduate students and Business School students to attend each other's classes. Cross-listing classes might help with credits, but if the classes are on the wrong day, it makes no difference. That will change in the fall, when the Business School will adopt a Monday-and-Wednesday and Tuesday-and-Thursday schedule.
Despite the calendar conflict, there have been notable examples of cross-school collaboration, showing that intellectual curiosity and a desire to solve problems can outweigh the relative inconvenience of an awkward schedule.
One such case is that of environmentalist Erica Plambeck, who has a PhD from the Department of Management Science and Engineering in the School of Engineering. Her field is operations management, which she succinctly defined as "getting the right stuff in the right place at the right time."
"When we teach MBA students about stocks and flows," she explained, "we should talk about stocks and flows in the atmosphere." Which is to say, there is way too much stock of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
"The trend in business education is to integrate ethical issues, social issues and the environment into the core curriculum but to address these issues in passing when we talk about, for example, paper manufacturing or oil refining," Plambeck said. "The point is that the tools students are learning apply not just to companies and regular inventory management but to the management of carbon dioxide. They have to see the larger picture."
Last year, Plambeck joined forces with management science and engineering Professor Jim Sweeney (also a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research and, by courtesy, at the Hoover Institution and the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies) and with Pamela Matson, the Chester Naramore Dean of the School of Earth Sciences and a great advocate of the larger picture, to teach a course called Business and the Environment, whose origin lay in a suggestion from students.
This year Plambeck taught Environmental Entrepreneurship, about how market forces can be harnessed to encourage private solutions to environmental concerns.
One challenge she faced is that courses from the various schools are not listed in the same place. It is difficult to find out what courses other schools are offering. As a result, she had a hard time rounding up students from outside the Business School, which disappointed her, especially as the seminar is based on teamwork.
"How do I get my class on the radar screen for students across campus?" she asked. "How do we manage the schedule so that students can attend?"
The commission, too, addressed this issue in its final report: "In today's online world, there is no reason that the Stanford Bulletin could not be organized in a manner that would permit a student to search it by topics, without regard to department structure."
Awaiting such an innovation, Plambeck resorted to publicizing her course by sending e-mails to professors outside the Business School whose students she figured might be interested.
"It's wonderful in a class to have teams of students from different schools," she said. "We had mostly GSB students this time around, but they were from variety of backgrounds. We had people who worked with nonprofits in Africa and with women's organizations, and there was an executive from China and someone in waste management."
Management is a key issue in her class, as it is in similar courses such as Business School Professor Stefanos Zenios' Biodesign Innovation (taught with colleagues in the schools of Medicine and Engineering) and Social Entrepreneurship Startup, taught by James Patell, the Herbert Hoover Professor of Public and Private Management, with colleagues in the School of Engineering. Echoing Joss, Plambeck pointed to management as the activity that puts scholarship to test and which, almost by definition, must cross boundaries.
"At the GSB, when we teach operations, we focus on the quantitative part, but someone who goes on to be managerial integrates all the disciplines. They're more applied," Plambeck said.
"So how do we get scholars to transition to be more managerial? We do it fairly well here. One thing the Business School does well is throwing students into teams and having them learn to manage, learning when to lead and when not, how you build a capable and effective team from individuals with different capabilities."
Thus there can be a tension between the disciplinary and the applied. People at the Business School are experts in their discipline, and they also come together, or teach their students to come together, to solve problems outside the academy. Those are two different things.
Making sure the two things coexist is one of the missions of the Center for Social Innovation, which focuses on three sets of relationships in the nonprofit world: across sectors, between theory and practice, and among disciplines.
From Director Jim Phills' point of view, "the problems of the world don't respect the clean boundaries of the academy. So, if you're interested in climate, there's science, politics, business, law and sociology. If you want to be effective, you must draw on many disciplines."
Phills, a social psychologist (he will be at Yale University in 2006-07), relies upon the Business School faculty to participate in the Center for Social Innovation. But he noted, echoing people all across the campus, rewards in academia—and not just at Stanford—tend to be bestowed on disciplinary work, not on interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary or even applied work.
There are significant pressures on junior faculty who want to buck tradition, he said.
"But sometimes I'm lucky," he said. "They see the possibilities; they see that new joint chairs are being created. The faculty is very intellectually curious. So we take them out of their comfort zone; we try to excite them.
"We need other forces to propel us toward interdisciplinarity. But larger forces mitigate against that. So for now, it's a person-to-person campaign. It's door-to-door. It takes only two or three visible cases of people who made a career doing something people said couldn't be done."
Like Stanford's other schools, the Business School must weigh the relative strengths of disciplinary rigor and multidisciplinary innovation. Ways to achieve both include cross-listing classes, offering joint and dual degrees, and giving courtesy appointments to faculty members who actively cross disciplines.
One such joint degree is the MBA/MS with the Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Environment and Resources (IPER). IPER has had programs with the Schools of Business, Law and Medicine since 2001; they are currently being revamped so as to attract a broader student base. In November the Business School faculty voted unanimously to support a new joint degree with IPER that will draw faculty from all seven schools. Students (who will be admitted by the Business School) will complete 129 units in two academic years plus two quarters with a concentration in one of four areas: natural sciences; culture, law, institutions and politics; technology and engineering; and economics and policy analysis.
Another such joint degree is the MBA/MA with the School of Education, the first—it began 30 years ago—and possibly the only such degree program in the country. (See Future business leaders dress the part.)
As at the Law School, the push toward cross-disciplinary work, toward working in that unstable space between theory and practice, comes most often from business students and alumni.
"You're asking a lot of flowers to bloom," Joss said. "Faculty work really hard, and it's hard to learn a second discipline. You've invested years in a certain field. There are lots of demands on your time. It's got to fit your self-image of what you want.
"It's amazing we have the degree of excitement we do."
The excitement for people like Plambeck, who does not yet have tenure, is that, as she said, "this is where my heart is."
The way she sees it, a transition must be made from multidisciplinary to interdisciplinary work. In order to effectively take on the world's hugest problems, scholars must start off working deeply in their field, but side-by-side with people from elsewhere.
"That's the heart of it. In order to train people well and have them succeed and get tenure, we need to train within the disciplines. We can't just say to a PhD student, 'Tackle global warming,'" Plambeck said.
"Students have a hard enough time getting to the top of their discipline, let alone the challenges of interdisciplinary work. The challenge is to help people master their discipline and then collaborate later in their careers."