Cool MBA Electives Part II

From communication at INSEAD to spirituality at Stanford, here are some more interesting b-school electives to supplement your core courses

This is the second installment in our series about the most interesting, unique, and timely business school electives you can take to supplement your core MBA curriculum. The first installment covers MBA electives at Suffolk, the University of Maryland, the University of St. Gallen, and Darden. 

When Science Meets Business: "Envisioning and Enabling Innovation"
Warwick Business School

Many scientists and researchers have great ideas for new products, but don't know the first thing about making them commercially viable. Likewise, people with good business sense might not know anything about actually creating something.

Nigel Sykes, who teaches "Envisioning and Enabling Innovation" at Warwick, says that this elective tries to get these two types of people talking. In the class, MBA students are mixed with PhD students from a variety of fields in order to stimulate the relationships that nurture innovation.

The class approaches the relational aspects in a very unique manner. Last year, Sykes says, "the very first thing I did was put them on a climbing wall, in teams of five," so that students could get to know each other and start figuring out how to work together. This unusual approach allowed them to find out "who they are, how to release each other's talent, and how to navigate the uncertainty" that's inherent in innovation.

Sykes notes that even if there is much uncertainty in how the projects play out over the course of the semester, there have been some successes. Last year, which was the first year that the course was offered, a business school student teamed up with a PhD student in chemistry to develop the formula for a bio-fuel that can be marketed as a safe and cheap substitute for the kerosene typically used by underprivileged families for cooking in South Africa. When they presented the idea to angel investors, Sykes says that "they'd never seen an investment potential in a social enterprise sense like it."

Going Digital: "New Media Marketing"
University of Western Ontario, Richard Ivey School of Business

"The challenge with new media marketing, and what makes it interesting, is that there is so much you need to know, and there really isn't a major for it," says Raymond Pirouz, who teaches "New Media Marketing" at Ivey.

Throughout the course, Pirouz delves into about ten topics ranging from search engine marketing to online community building and location-based marketing.

"Most people associate social media with what the course is all about," says Pirouz, "but that's really only one-tenth of the course."

The aim of the elective is to give students a broad understanding of the current tools, as well as the larger implications of how they work in business.

"I base the class on marketing fundamentals, and how marketing has evolved in this new digital space," says Pirouz. By framing the class in terms of a broader perspective, students come away with a better understanding of the implications of this quickly-developing subject.

"So much of this stuff is experimental and always in flux; and tomorrow, all of it might change," Pirouz says, "so focusing purely on the tools is not going to give you the strategic advantage in terms of thinking from a management perspective."

Throughout the course of the elective, students work on their own digital marketing projects in groups. The final products can be anything from a new marketing plan or an improvement to an existing campaign.

Your Life Credo: "The Business World: Moral and Spiritual Inquiry through Literature"
Stanford Graduate School of Business

By looking at a broad range of novels, plays, and short stories, this elective gives Stanford MBA students the chance to see their business careers in terms of a much broader perspective.

"We're reading a text for the day, but we're also looking at students' own lives and experiences, and that's very much brought to the forum in the classroom," says Scotty McLennan, who has taught the class at Stanford for about ten years (he taught it at Harvard before that).

McLennan says that he encourages a Socratic discussion forum rather than a typical lecture environment, so that students can have a dialogue and draw on elements from their own backgrounds.

"There's both a personal dimension to the course, helping people build their own personal understanding, and also a cultural understanding through the novels, plays, and short stories," he says.

The reading list is diverse, covering a wide range of cultures and eras. In the past, students have read F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon, Kazuo Ishiguro's An Artist of the Floating World, Naguib Mahfouz's Miramar, and David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross.

The texts often carry spiritual implications from a diverse range of religions, and show how "the ethical climate and the way people operate is often very much influenced by the religious environment," says McLennan, "although that's generally not brought to active consciousness in the business world."

The students who take the class are generally in their last quarter of their second year and many of them have already landed jobs. At this point, McLennan says, they are looking for something that allows them to put their lives in perspective.

"They've been climbing the ladder, to get from high school to college, and then from college into the right job, and from that job back to business school," says McLennan. "And I say to them, 'how are you going to live the next 30, 40, 50 years of your life? And, what's the big picture for you now in terms of where you are going?'"

Channeling your Passion: "The Art of Communication"

"Whether you are standing up in a conference with 5,000 people, or you're interviewing for a job over Skype," you need to be able to effectively communicate, says Steve Knight, who teaches "The Art of Communication" at INSEAD.

A main issue with communication, along with other soft skills, like leadership or persuasion, is that it's a skill that can be very hard to develop in a typical business school classroom setting. To get around this, the elective addresses the practical issues that can help improve your communication skills, including how to identify your audience, and the importance of your voice and body language, by videotaping student presentations.

This allows students to immediately see both potential problem areas and strengths. But the course also goes much deeper than that.

"A really large percentage of the course, as it has evolved, is asking people to look very deep within themselves to discover their real inner self," says Knight, because "you can't do anything as a leader unless you're looking after yourself first."

"The Art of Communication" is a two-day course that appeals to a broad swath of MBA students. Knight says that he sees "people who are very aware of the importance of the core subjects," like finance or accounting, "but they're also aware that they need the communication skills to help them improve their leadership skills."

Image: Deep Thinking by Wissam Shekhani / Creative Commons (cropped)


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