Online Extra: An MBA With a Thematic Approach

Toronto B-School Dean Roger Martin says integrative thinking allows MBAs to come up with more flexible models for today's complex business world

To stand out from the crowd, many mid-tier business schools are creating specialized MBA programs that focus on health care, sports management, and arts administration. One school, the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, has taken a thematic approach to specialization. It has developed a curriculum that stresses "integrative thinking" or the use of numerous academic disciplines to attack complex business problems.

Rotman's program aims to help MBA students learn how to build new, flexible models better suited for a globalized business world. The unusual approach seems to be working. While many B-schools are experiencing a decline in applications, at Rotman they've been up 30% since 2001.

Dean Roger Martin, 49, has centered Rotman's entire curriculum around integrative thinking since coming on board in 1998. He recently received a vote of confidence in the form of $10 million in additional funding from the Canadian Credit Management Foundation. The money will support Rotman's Marcel Desautels Centre for Integrative Thinking for the next five years.

Martin's decision to shake up the system is rooted in his time as a director at Monitor, a global strategy consulting firm. In the early 1990s, he founded and chaired the firm's educational arm and discovered some troubling trends with the firm's MBA hires.

Martin recently discussed the merits of the integrative-thinking approach with BusinessWeek intern Lindsey Gerdes. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:

Why did you see the need for an integrative-thinking approach to business education during your years as a consultant?

Companies were hiring us for messy problems that didn't fit into one discipline or another. They wanted people who could design solutions to complicated business problems.

[At Monitor] we hired two kinds of people: Undergraduate consultants and MBAs from Harvard and Wharton.

We originally thought [undergraduates] needed lots of training, and MBAs only needed a little. In 1991 we started putting them through the same training because the MBAs were not a bit more likely to have that thinking capability.

How are students introduced to integrative thinking?

During their first month, [students] do a day-long simulation game with a half-day "debrief" on how that applies to integrative thinking.

First-year [students] also take a required course called Foundations of Integrative Thinking. It gives you an introduction to the process of thinking and decision making.

Then you can choose to sign up for an integrative thinking lab that you take on an ongoing basis during the year, or in a compressed, week-long forum after final exams in the spring.

What are other ways integrative thinking is incorporated into the curriculum?

During the second year, students take part in the Integrative Management Challenge, which is a simulation-based course where you play a game. It's kind of cool in that the whole 260-person class is broken into teams of five. Boards assembled of five businesspeople from different organizations work with each team, and they have to do a labor negotiation and write a marketing plan.

When I proposed the course, one of the concerns was [whether we] could possibly get that many board members, but we have a waiting list because so many people find it fun to work with the students.

There are also a number of second-year electives: Organizational Strategy, Thinking it Through, which is a systems dynamics course, and a course called Learning to Learn. I also teach a course called Shape it, Don't Take It. The premise is how the [problem-solving] models you choose to adopt either accept how the world around you is, or shape it for the better.

There's also an innovative thinker seminar series. There have been 47 speakers so far, including people like Michael Dell [of Dell (DELL )] and Procter & Gamble CEO (PG ) Alan G. Lafley, who are particularly adept at integrative thinking.

Any other favorite speakers that stand out in particular -- people who really exemplify what an integrative thinker should be?

Isadore Sharp, who grew the Four Seasons from nothing to the world's finest luxury hotel chain. His first two hotels were a small motor hotel and a huge convention hotel, both highly successful.

He's faced with two models, both of which succeed [yet they] oppose each other. He said I love the intimacy of the motor hotels and the customer service, but I love the amenities of the big convention hotel, and I hate the anonymity.

An integrative thinker looks at that and says rather than choose one or the other, I need to build a better model that takes into account these two opposing models and then creates something magnificent. And what's what he did. Integrative thinking allows you to understand opposing models rather than saying, "I need to pick."

Is everyone cut out to be an integrative thinker?

I think integrative thinkers are people who are a little more interested in other people, and how groups work together. We are getting people who are coming here because they've taken a design approach to life. People who think "could there be another way".

There are other people who loathe that. That kind of managerial mode is going to be less productive over time. I think it's going to be harder to succeed that way in a pure human-capital world.

I know you're entering your second of two terms at Rotman. What is your goal for the next five years?

By the time I leave [in 2010] I want us to have a program recognized as utterly distinctive and different from other business schools so people will say: "I can go to lots of schools, but there's only one [place] I can get integrative thinking." If we do that, we'll have a top 10 business school.

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