Where MBAs Learn The Art Of Blue-Skying

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If you are looking for a business school that teaches you how to think creatively, design new products and services, manage your innovations through a corporate bureaucracy, or present them to outside angel investors, Fontaine-bleau, France-based Insead, the leading European B-school, just outside Paris, may be just the place. Insead has joined with the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., to offer a joint program that teaches the role of creativity in business decisions, how innovation really works, and why design may be as important to corporate management today as Six Sigma was in the '90s. A Swiss trustee who sits on both boards brought them together.

Insead's curriculum addresses what is now the hottest area of demand in Corporate America: managers who can manage creativity, not just process. As General Electric Co. (GE ), Procter & Gamble Co. (PG ), and other U.S. corporations shift their focus beyond quality and efficiency toward innovation, demand for managers who understand "right-brain" creativity is soaring. "I've been teaching the Strategies for Product and Service Development course for 3 1/2 years, and I see the limitations of not having practical design skills," says Manuel E. Sosa, Insead professor of technology and operations management.

Art Center President Richard Koshalek believes design schools can help business schools in teaching a new generation of managers about innovation. "The business community is just now discovering the importance of creativity," he says.

B-school students usually learn how to create business plans but only occasionally develop actual products or services. This process is integral to the Insead program. In January, eight Art Center College students flew to France to join 44 Insead MBAs. They were divided into eight project teams, each with a design student. For the first part of the program, the teams had to develop a new product idea. To help them, Insead set up their own design studio, with space for 3D rapid prototyping and brainstorming. MBAs who had worked in banking, insurance, and energy and were used to analyzing numbers were taught to focus on consumer needs, visualize ideas via prototypes, and test their concepts. "It doesn't feel like you're in a business school at all there," says Sosa.

By the end of 14 weeks, the teams completed their concepts -- high-end luggage for professional women business travelers with special compartments and wheels that make it easier to pull; running shoes that indicate when the shock absorbers are wearing down; a device that removes cigarette smoke from suits for nonsmoking American execs who must do deals in Paris or Frankfurt. "Working with design students has opened our minds," says Christine Hutcheson, a 34-year-old Insead MBA who has worked at Sun Microsystems Inc. (SUNW ). Her team developed the Contigo, an upscale "lunch box" for professionals that high-end grocers or Weight Watchers would fill with healthy food. "If you had just put five MBAs in a room with this project, they would have taken a three-ring binder, put it in a Ziploc bag, and punched holes in it," she says. "It's very hard to teach creativity, especially at a business school. I've loved this experience."

The second part of the program has the MBA students returning to the business world. The teams will soon present their concepts to actual angel investors who may take them into the marketplace.

As the final fillip to the program, in early May many of the Insead MBAs will travel to Pasadena. The Art Center College will take them to the BMW design studio, Nokia (NOK ), idealab, and Walt Disney Imagineering (DIS ) in Los Angeles to see the role of design in business. Its faculty will teach courses in design and design management. The program will end with corporations sending recruiting reps to talk with the students.

Teaching elephants to dance may be easier than teaching managers how to innovate. Nevertheless, executives increasingly demand that their managers be creative. U.S. business and engineering schools increasingly offer product design and development courses. But Insead and the Art Center College appear to be taking it to a new level. Managing organizations is important. But managing creativity is the must-have skill for today's managers.

By Bruce Nussbaum in New York and Rachel Tiplady in Paris

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