Designing a Business Degree at the Parsons School for Design

I spent a day with the most amazing group of people talking about the future of business education on Tuesday. We were at the Parsons School of Design, which offers one of the only undergraduate set of business degrees given by a design school in the US. With traditional undergrad and graduate business education melting down these days, this was a huge opportunity to blue sky a new, more human-centered, creativity-focussed kind of education.

Seated around the table were Roger Martin, Dean of the Rotman School of Management at the U of Toronto, Fred Dust and Ryan Jacoby from IDEO, Gordon Hui, partner at Peer Insight service innovation consulting firm, Arne van Oosterom, service design consultant from the Netherlands, Dr. Jay Parkinson, founder of Hello Health and the new Future Well wellness consultancy, Shawn Edwards, head honcho of technology at Bloomberg, Bob Feldman, head of the PulsePoint media consulting group. New School Provost Tim Marshall, Parsons Dean Joel Towers and professors Alison Mears, Jamer Hunt, Cameron Tonkinwise, Carlos Teixeira participated.

The Design & Management program within the School of Design Strategies program at Parsons is huge—600 students, growing fast—and the goal of the workshop was to shape its future. The program began a few years back when students (and their parents) expressed a desire to get into the business side of the fashion industry (hence, it began as a “human-centered” program based on students/parents desires/needs). Now Parsons wants to extend the curriculum and teaching staff to enable students to do Design and Design Thinking in all spheres of society, from business and medical services to social innovation. In short, the business degree program at Parsons wants to grow into the new wider space of Design as it has evolved from product to process, from stuff to experience.

For me, this is a great chance to structure what I think ALL education needs to be today—a learning experience that enables students to navigate a changing, uncertain world using the tools and methods of Design. I believe that we need to shift from a Consuming to a Making society and from a Choosing to a Creating culture. Human-centered, iterative, collaborative, prototyping, generative approaches to problem-solving need to replace our old educational models, from liberal arts to business programs.

Staging this workshop shows that’s what Parsons wants to do, which puts it way ahead of most American universities (and certainly the big local, New York ones, such as NYU and Columbia). That Parsons is doing it within its own undergrad business programs makes it even sweeter (again, way ahead of the B-schools at NYU and Columbia).

The bottom line of the workshop was the need to focus undergrad business education on what Arne van Oosterom called the “3 Cs”—Context, Collaboration and Connection. Check out a long discussion that Arne led on his site. By Context, I interpret that to mean transferring the

skills of ethnography to business students so that they understand and empathize with the different cultures they will operate within throughout their working lives. Those cultures range from the business/social organizations that employ them to the digital, village, mall, urban, Chinese, European, Brazilian and other global cultures they will work in. Collaboration and teamwork are the new core competencies of work and life but few schools actually show you how to maximize the experience. Fred Dust pointed out how ritual plays a huge role in collaboration and creativity--the rules of behavior often determine the outcomes of team effort (think brainstorming). For students who have grown up networking on Facebook, actual human contact and collaboration can be shocking (my own students are saying they need to learn how to engage physically, not just digitally).

Connection is all important, from using new hybrid on-line learning methods to forging post-graduation networks that continue to help grads in jobs and life. Alumni networks, as the Harvard B-School has shown, can be invaluable through life. In addition, a connecting educational model for Parsons could and should open up the Parsons undergrad business degree programs to life-long learning, with formal masters and Ph.d programs as well as smaller workshops, exec-ed programs and simple salons and small conferences offering learning spaces for business grads.

At the end of the day, I talked with Tim Marshall, Joel Towers and the professors around the table. Their reaction was a mix of relief and determination. The day's conversation reaffirmed their own plans to move the School of Design Strategies business degree programs forward. To them, its now time to execute--a tough job in any academic culture.

But which other university, which other school of design, and especially, which other undergrad business degree program in the US is moving as fast as Parsons to build a creativity-based network of learning? Not many.

One more thing--anyone have a better name than "School of Design Strategies?"

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.