Top business schools refocus curricula

People management, global markets, and computers. Many of the nation's top business schools are concentrating more effort on these three areas. The subjects are seen by some deans as undervalued in academia but extremely important in the ''real world.''

''What I am most concerned about . . . is people-management skills,'' says Everett Keech, vice-dean at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.

''This involves more self-assessment, an idea of what kind of impact you are making on other people - not touchy-feely, but more like time management, how to run a meeting, how to deal with troublesome contemporaries, how to manage yourself.''

Dean Keech says this is the kind of feedback he has gotten from American companies that recruit or hire business school graduates.

Corporate leaders are talking to other deans, too. A task force of business leaders told Cornell University this year that its business school ''should strengthen'' its offerings in ''human resource management.''

And Richard West, outgoing dean at the Amos Tuck School of Business Administration at Dartmouth says: ''Employers of our graduates are telling us that MBA students don't communicate as effectively as they might. Students are telling us they think they are weak in this area.''

These three schools, at least, are going about correcting the problem in a number of ways. ''Some of it will be included in core courses; in other cases it will be an elective,'' says David Thomas, dean of Cornell's Graduate School of Business and Public Administration. But, he adds, it is a bit tough to get the whole faculty to support the idea. ''Slowly an attitude change is coming about, but you still have the (finance, accounting, statistics, and so forth) people who feel there's no rigor whatever in doing (people-oriented) things.''

Wharton's vice-dean admits he doesn't quite know how to deal with teaching ''people management.'' He has started by making a separate, overall course to tackle the issue, and he is now looking at all business courses to find ways to ''put the people aspect into them.'' Wharton has also divided its incoming class into smaller groups. Dean Keech says he hopes this will add to students' dimension of people awareness.

As business schools try to beef up the human-resources aspect of management, they are also trying to improve their training in international business, where people skills come in handy.

Last year, the new dean at the Columbia Business School dismantled the international department and spread the courses around to the rest of the departments. ''We need to emphasize throughout the faculty that we look at each department from an international perspective,'' says John Burton, the dean. Columbia is also ''hiring new senior, tenured faculty with strong international orientation,'' he adds.

But, like human resources, there are aspects to international business that are difficult to teach. ''International finance and trade theory can be taught, . . . but how strategies and cultures differ is not obvious,'' says Dean West at Dartmouth.

Like Columbia, Tuck is also working hard to hire new faculty with international experience, but international business is one area in academia where demand for teachers is far greater than supply, Dean West says. ''I don't see a problem with hiring a 28-year-old in accounting, but I'm very reluctant to hire someone who is 27 or 28 and never had a passport or known what managing in international environments is really like.''

Wharton worked out a deal last year with the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, allowing students to exchange between the two schools and get a masters degree in international relations and an MBA in three years.

One reason for attention to the global market has been the electronic-information industry; computers have brought businesses much closer together.

And computers are another area business schools are investing in. Most of the top schools already have computer equipment in place - but not the personal computers that are proliferating. Dean Burton says Columbia is winding up a major personal computer contract with International Business Machines. ''Students will have fluency in the use of a computer,'' he says, ''so they will have fluency in using computers for business problem solving.'' Dartmouth's Tuck is also in the process of buying more computers.

What about Stanford University, whose business school is known as the nation's ''top number-crunching school''? Last year it underwent a major curriculum review, ''but the suggestions were all scrapped by the faculty,'' says spokesman Rich Kurovsky. ''The reforms weren't needed; we have a very tried and true system.''

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