Sometimes, the world of business is a better teacher than the school of business. For the past 30 years or so, the ``world'' experienced by business school students has consisted of little more than classroom casework, with a focus on solving internal operating problems.
How to manage people better, how to cover costs, how to keep a reasonable set of accounts - ``these are all subjects we've dealt well with,'' says Curtis Tarr, dean of Cornell University's Johnson Graduate School of Management.
Recent criticism that they have not focused enough on the real world, however, has forced the top 10 business schools to shift their focus. Teaching students to understand the relationship between business and the political, social, and biological environment is increasingly seen as ``the key to effective management in the future,'' says David Baron, professor of business and the environment at Stanford University Graduate School of Business.
In an attempt to embrace more of the world in the MBA curriculum, various college faculties are developing courses that focus more on the forces outside business. ``All of the top 10 B-schools have begun'' programs in this area, says Ilker Baybars, associate dean of the MBA program at Carnegie-Mellon University School of Industrial Administration, in Pittsburgh.
At Stanford, for example, a field of studies called political economics is being offered for the first time, Mr. Baron says. Its purpose is to ``train a set of scholars to take modern analytical methods and use them in studying governmental issues,'' he says.
Under direction of its dean, the MBA program at Cornell has also been redesigned to include a wider variety of disciplines. A new academic program is being launched that will add science, engineering, and agriculture to the more traditional management courses. Last spring, as a primer, Cornell opened a course on the external environment of business, which considers other nations as being as relevant as the United States, Mr. Tarr says.
And the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School offers students a program - similar to one at Cornell - that combines intensive Japanese studies with a regular management degree.
While some contend that studies like political economics and environmental business are being handled well by existing courses, quite a few say the evidence suggests otherwise.
``I've worked for the federal government, state, city, and county governments, and I've always been appalled at how little intelligent businessmen know about how governments work, how their laws are passed, or how legislators are influenced,'' says Cornell's Tarr.
Right now, ``very few places in the country seem to be producing scholars able to deal with a mixed bag'' of subjects, says Baron at Stanford.
As the marketplace widens its horizons, technology advances rapidly, and the environment becomes more threatened, says Russell Palmer, dean of the Wharton School; ``we can no longer take the attitude that I only operate in a domestic market, so I don't have to worry about international issues.''
``Someone can just as easily come along from overseas and take away that domestic market.''
While the younger business schools have bent more easily with this changing wind, some of the older schools seem steeped in tradition.
Harvard Business School, for example, attempts to teach almost everything with cases, a school spokesman says. It's also ``very much geared up to business life in the States,'' notes second-year student Nick Rowland of Britain. Although this Londoner says his ``alien'' perspective may have caused him to be unusually sensitive to it, others agree with his first impression.
A former student, Nancy Walker, however, says she found Harvard Business School's broad management approach ``very useful'' in terms of what she does now. ``It raises your awareness of what potential issues you might face when you're actually out there,'' says the '86 graduate, who now works for J. Bildner & Sons, a diverse food services-related company in Boston, and is involved in a wide range of the company's operations.
But ``the problems we talk about today won't be the problems we'll talk about tomorrow,'' Tarr contends. It's therefore important, he says, for students to discuss the specific problems of today, then try to speculate as to where those specifics will take them.
Continuing education is one solution. Because ``change is happening exponentially,'' Wharton's Mr. Palmer says, ``a lot of people who were trained 20 years ago aren't in tune with what's going on.''
Corporations spend about $30 billion a year on training, according to a recent New York Times report. Outside training, like executive seminars at business schools, consists of about $2 billion to $3 billion of that, Palmer estimates.
If you look at the Fortune 500 companies, challenges Mr. Baybars at Carnegie-Mellon, ``you see they all spend a lot of money on consulting fees, to come up with alternatives in various situations.'' Why, he asks, shouldn't businesspeople be trained to do the same?
In response to this question, Carnegie-Mellon has added an emphasis on creativity and innovation in its studies, as opposed to concentrating on analysis.
``You don't have to do an awful lot before you open up the vision of an intelligent person in a very helpful way,'' Cornell's Tarr says.