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SMG Spearheads Global Online “Jam”

Improving business schools’ “relevance, reach, and respect”

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Seismic tremors are rattling the halls of business schools everywhere.

It’s not just the challenge of leveraging the best use of online education—that task is faced by educators in every field. More seriously, business schools are contending with existential questions of their worth following the financial collapse of 2008, with critics calling MBAs a waste of money. A Wall Street Journal commentator wrote, “Finding and building a network will be more valuable to you than an MBA.…Invest in buying coffee, drinks, and dinner for people you want to get to know.” An Economist writer struck a similarly harsh tone: “The return on investment on an MBA has gone the way of Greek public debt.” Even some B-school professors have endorsed rewriting curricula to better reflect real-world business challenges.

Kenneth Freeman has heard this discussion inside the ivory tower, but the School of Management’s Allen Questrom Professor and Dean says he’s heard “virtually no conversation at all with industry.” Freeman, a turnaround specialist before coming to BU in 2010, decided to launch that conversation, with help from IBM.

He and N. Venkatraman, David J. McGrath, Jr., Professor in Management at SMG, organized what Freeman calls a “Jam”—borrowing a music world term—an unprecedented, 60-hour, online global discussion about business education’s future. Expected to draw between 5,000 and 100,000 participants, SMG’s Business Education Jam runs from September 30 through October 2 and will include leaders from business and higher education. Among them: Clayton Christensen, a Harvard Business School expert on innovation, IBM CIO Jeanette Horan, Howard Thomas, dean of Singapore Management University, and BU President Robert A. Brown.

“A comprehensive global conversation between industry and business schools has never happened before,” says Freeman. Reports “summarizing the most popular topics, new ideas, and polls from the Jam will be produced soon after the event, and a series of post-Jam conferences and symposia will take place around the world. We believe the biggest benefit will be movement from ideas to concrete actions to improve the relevance, reach, and respect for business schools around the world.”

In essence, the Jam will be a giant chat room, enabled by technology IBM has used to run similar forums in other fields. It will work like this: those registering for the Jam will receive a username and password that will allow them to log in at their convenience during the Jam’s run. The home page will guide them to 10 forums that they may choose to monitor, in addition to future conversations, ongoing conversations, and trending hot topics. Like a chat room, participants will be able to post comments and respond to others’ comments during 30-minute discussion forums taking place throughout the Jam.

In an explanatory video on the Jam’s website, Freeman says participants won’t lack for questions to hash over. With Wall Street malfeasance partly responsible for the financial crisis, how can business schools better teach ethics? How can corporate-academic partnerships better inform business school research, which Freeman says hasn’t transformed how industry operates? And how about preparing those millennials to be productive business leaders?

Each of the 10 forums explores a different theme. They are: Supporting 21st Century Competencies; Increasing the Value of Management Education; Engaging New-Generation Students and Employees; Cultivating Research Relevance and Rigor; Fostering Ethical Leadership; Cultivating Innovation and Entrepreneurship; Driving Learning Experiences; Harnessing Digital Technology; Challenging the Business Model of Education; and Advancing Policy and Governance.

In addition to SMG and IBM, the Jam’s lead sponsors are Merck, Johnson & Johnson, the Financial Times, business school accrediting agencies EFMD and AACSB, the business school consortium Graduate Management Admission Council, and Santander.

According to the Jam website, following the event IBM will analyze the data “and break it down into actionable next steps.

This discussion between business and educators is long overdue, according to Freeman. “The time has come and it is now,” he says.

Register for the September 30 to October 2 School of Management Business Education Jam here.

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Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

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