New MBA mod­ule brings on the clowns to teach cre­ativ­ity

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - ISSUES - ME­LANIE BLYTHE

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.

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