New MBA module brings on the clowns to teach creativity
A CRITICISM often levelled at that most illustrious of qualifications, the Masters in Business Administration, is that for all the technical knowledge and skill it imparts, it perhaps lacks that all-important practical element that comes from doing rather than learning. Any recruiter will tell you an MBA is highly attractive, but only if matched by real-life experience.
This observation is by no means a criticism of the MBA, it simply highlights the limitations of traditional learning as it has been practised through the ages – learning that engages us on the rational, cognitive level only. Teaching that shares existing models of learning, instead of challenging us to create new ones.
It may come as a surprise that this observation comes directly from a voice within the realm of the MBA – from a senior lecturer at the UCT Graduate School of Business, Jonathan Foster-Pedley. An MBA graduate of Ashridge Business School in England, he co-created the graduate school’s executive MBA programme.
Foster-Pedley has put his alternative views on learning into practice with an elective on the MBA programme called “strategy, design and creativity”. It is unconventional in every way imaginable, from the assessment methods and subject matter to the lecturers and intended outcome.
He describes the purpose of the course as “to recover lost creativity”, and by that he means allowing his students to reconnect with their innate creativity – which sadly, gets eroded in many of us by the time we reach adulthood.
Foster-Pedley explains: “People tend to think of creativity as something separate, or a special case – it’s not. Creativity exists within each and every one of us, we have just been taught to believe that our rational side is more important.
“People also tend to think that business is about maths and numbers and reason when actually it is all about creativity and innovation.”
The course is only one of a handful of similar programmes on offer around the world, but Foster-Pedley is adamant that this approach to learning and the emphasis on creativity will become a core part of many MBA programmes within the next five to 10 years.
If the numbers on his elective are anything to go by, he could be right. The course began four years ago with a class of 15 students and has now increased to 60 – almost half of the graduate school’s MBA contingent this year – perhaps signalling a growing awareness that creativity and innovation will become an increasingly sought-after attribute in the 21st century business world.
The course makes use of alternative models of learning in order to challenge the students creatively and get them to interrogate their own creative processes, even if they don’t believe they have any.
Instead of suits lecturing on the wonders of the free-market system, or the golden rules of supply and demand, the students are presented with magicians, comedians and actors – any so-called “creative” individual that can share insights into how they create.
Again, in contradiction to more conventional teaching methods, the course is about participation and process rather than end product. It has its own living, breathing social networking website where the students write blogs, join debates and discussions, form groups of common interest and hone creative muscle by writing haiku and playing games.
Craig Friderichs, a student on this year’s course and a doctor at Groote Schuur Hospital, says he chose the elective in order to “bring structure to my creative thought process”. He says Foster-Pedley’s approach can be rather daunting, if exciting, for many students at first.
“A lot of us on the course come from engineering, business and scientific backgrounds so many did feel challenged by the programme initially, but Jon’s teaching methodology is so interactive, and his emphasis on experiential learning means we often have to figure out for ourselves what he wants us to do.”
Friderichs says the highlight of the course so far was “fancy dress day” when everyone had to come to class in costume – and Foster-Pedley showed them all up when he arrived in a full banana suit. So, with a course that is self-assessed and selfmanaged, how does Foster-Pedley keep the students actively engaged and motivated, one might wonder?
“By connecting them to a bigger purpose,” he says – which neatly captures perhaps the most inspirational aspect of the course.
The students are challenged to “do good” by coming up with ways to give back to society in whatever way they like. This year’s class had planned to build two houses over a weekend recently.
“With this course we are trying to establish a real community, and to get that kind of involvement from people you need to create a purpose that is bigger than a project, a purpose that the students can believe in and contribute to,” he explains.
“It also makes sense to use the energy generated within a community for a social purpose,” he adds.
Indeed, the “doing good” aspect is perhaps the thread that binds the entire programme together, focusing the bounds of creative energy it stimulates towards a central, meaningful purpose.
It is also in line with the ethos of the UCT business school under the new directorship of Professor Walter Baets, who has plans to establish the school as a values-driven organisation in its actions and teaching.
“We want to create a more socially responsible type of business person here,” says Baets.
Asked to describe the ideal outcome of his “strategy, design and creativity” course, Foster-Pedley answers, “for students to become confident in themselves – in their own creativity and imagination – and then to feed that confidence to their communities”.
“Even if we don’t see the results immediately, I believe we will have done enough to just plant the seed to stimulate creativity and purpose in the students, the effects of which may only become apparent later on.”
If his predictions are correct – and this learning model becomes more popular – then the world of business does have something to look forward to – a new generation of business practitioners who are creative and socially conscious.
Blythe is the editor at Rothko, a marketing, design and public relations company employed by the UCT Graduate School of Business.