Cool MBA Electives: Beyond the Core Curriculum

Four of the most unique and interesting MBA program elective courses being offered this year

Go through any business school course schedule, and you'll probably see a lot of very standard courses on the list: finance, accounting, leadership. While these classes are a significant part of the business school experience, many MBA programs also give you the opportunity to explore some different avenues. With electives, your MBA experience can be more nuanced, and can help you develop skills that match your particular interests and goals.

This is the first article in a series dedicated to exploring some of the most interesting, unique, and timely MBA electives offered globally.

White Collared: "Corporate Fraud and Financial Crime"
Suffolk University, Sawyer Business School

Using real-world examples like the Enron case and the sub-prime mortgage crisis, this course delves into the intrigue-laden topics of corporate crime and financial fraud.

Miriam Weismann designed the course seven years ago, and teaches it each semester. She says that the class appeals to a broad swath of MBA students, even those without a strong finance or accounting background.

"What most business students are finally realizing is that the real problem in corporate America and globally is not an accounting problem or a finance problem," she says. "What it really is is a corporate governance problem."

To help students get to the root of these issues, Weismann examines the case studies through a variety of lenses, including behavioral finance, regulatory principles, and relevant laws. She also supplements the case studies with relevant guest speaker lectures. In a recent class, for example, she invited Harry Markopolos, who blew the whistle on Bernie Madoff, to come and talk.

Weismann says that many students engage with the course simply because it's so relevant:

"All you have to do is open the newspaper, because everyday there is another corporate fraud," she says.

"Students are actually more interested in this course than others because this is really where the world is at, and nobody's teaching this stuff."

The Big Business of 1's and 0's: "Data Mining"
University of Maryland, Robert H. Smith School of Business

"Businesses and governments are collecting more and more data, so we have all these opportunities for improving processes and decision-making, if we know how to take advantage of the data," explains Margrét Bjarnadóttir, who will teach a Data Mining elective starting this fall.

The course details some of the concepts and the techniques that go into data mining. According to Bjarnadóttir, students bring their own projects and data question into the class, which they work on throughout the semester.

"So they're collecting the data, cleaning it up, and getting it into a suitable format, and then running some analytics on it, and then finally taking the output and putting it to work," she says.

Data mining falls under the umbrella of business analytics, which is quickly becoming a very significant area for many industries. Retail businesses, for example, collect huge amounts of data every day to understand, in surprising detail, how their customers shop so that they can more efficiently target sales and other promotions.

Bjarnadóttir notes that, while the class audience is "quite broad," interest is usually limited by inclination: "If you hate math then this is not your course."

Rethinking the Bottom Line: "Corporate Ecology and Sustainability"
University of St. Gallen

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) often poses a quandary for many managers: how can you do good for the environment and the world while sustaining a profit for your business at the same time? This course seeks to find ways to do just that, by examining the many different ways a business can be run, and then trying to measure the costs and externalities of each, through case studies.

According to James Kurz, who took the class last year, one of the overall goals is to help students understand the bottom line as three individual components: the economic bottom line, the environmental bottom line, and the social bottom line.

Kurz says that when he was researching MBA programs, electives like this one helped him decide on St. Gallen.

"It was somewhat disturbing looking into MBA programs," he recalls, noting that a commitment to corporate sustainability "just wasn't on the radar."

Kurz says that this course, along with a few related electives and two internships in renewable energy companies, gave him enough of a cohesive understanding of these issues to land a full-time job with a strategic management consulting firm specializing in clean-tech and renewable energies.

Thinking like a Designer: "Corporate Innovation and the Design Experience"
University of Virginia, Darden School of Business

"Design thinking," is a term that's thrown around a lot these days. But according to Jeanne Liedtka, who designed and teaches Darden's "Corporate Innovation and the Design Experience," it's here to stay, simply because many managers are struggling to find new approaches to sustain their businesses.

"If you look at the pressure managers are under today to produce growth in an environment that has made producing that growth much more difficult," she says, then a new tactic to produce that growth is a necessity.

Liedtka says that design thinking seeks to generate organic growth through a deeper understanding of a business' target markets "including how customers use products, what's already out there, and what niches can be filled" even before the innovation process begins.

However, "the design thinking material is very difficult to teach through traditional lecture or case methods," Liedtka says. So, a big part of this course is a hands-on project component, where students work directly with a corporate client in small teams. For example, students in a recent course found themselves helping a large auto parts retailer understand new potential markets.

The broad appeal of this course may have something to do with how it uniquely supplements Darden's core MBA curriculum. It's essentially "a right-brain toolkit to match the left-brain toolkit that we've already given them through the two years of their MBAs," according to Liedtka, "so they can think more creatively and expansively about how to identify deep user insights, how to translate those deep user insights to new value propositions."

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