How Business Schools Can Become CEOs' New Problem Solvers

Chief executives in most fields tend to agree that it can be hard to separate their companies from others selling similar products. Increasingly, the businesses that stand out are successful because of what they are able to do—their unique set of capabilities—not just what they sell. Think about Apple’s design capability, Amazon’s customer support and data analytics, or Danaher’s superb operational skills.

This form of success has eluded most companies because these distinctive capabilities almost always require help from many squares on the patchwork quilt of corporate functions: sales, marketing, IT, distribution, and so on. The success of a company such as Amazon is extremely difficult to replicate in a world of organizational silos, where companies seem to focus on developing world-class capabilities department by department.

CEOs can’t just relegate innovation or customer management to the R&D or sales groups. Successful companies tend to set up more permanent teams around a specific task and add high-level people (a chief innovation or digital officer) to help accomplish it. But many companies struggle to excel in a world that demands fewer departmental borders.

Challenges of this magnitude require more than incremental adjustments—and business schools are ideally situated to help CEOs with the problem. Business schools have great faculties of thinkers across many disciplines and the convening power to unite executives and academics to rethink their issues. B-school students also come from all kinds of fields, locations, educational perspectives, and motivations, offering a much broader set of perspectives than is always available in the boardroom.

Imagine MBA classes that convene people from different disciplines to foster new, innovative answers to business problems. Students in a class that combined manufacturing, R&D, and marketing, for example, would have to move way beyond the typical innovation curriculum to figure out how to leverage supply chain strengths and market insights. Business schools can be an ideal forum for untethered thinking on the topics that businesses are wrestling with and as a way to train future leaders to work beyond traditional corporate strictures.

There’s another reason, too. Functionally driven B-schools have to rethink their own structures. The current setup may strengthen deep research in such areas as economics, marketing, and finance, but it makes research and teaching that cut across different disciplines more difficult.

Some schools are taking steps toward a more democratic approach to business education. The Stanford Graduate School of Business is well-known for attacking tough problems by bringing together experts from various disciplines, and the Kellogg School of Management (where we both teach in the management and strategy department) is putting in place a matrix structure to bring together academics and practitioners from various disciplines. The approach is already changing how the school approaches the field of data analytics, traditionally the bailiwick of marketing and/or technology. Under the new setup, Kellogg brings in experts from operations, strategy, and finance, as well as marketing and technology, with the goal of connecting the science of data more directly with applications that could benefit the most.

Today, B-schools confront something of an identity crisis as they rethink their purpose in research and education. But they also face a singular opportunity to position themselves as think tanks for CEOs to develop new ideas. We hope more schools take advantage of the opportunity.

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