In the September issue of Chief Learning Officer, we published a feature on how companies and colleges are working together to ensure academic institutions teach students the right skills to prepare them for the business world. The gist of the article was that students need more experiential learning to build practical abilities and confidence.
But what if academic programs required students to have experience before they walk into the classroom? That way, students can apply the theories learned in business school to what they’ve seen in their careers.
“The quality of the class is based on the quality of the students,” said Ida Byrd-Hill, who introduced the idea to me through email and talked with me over the phone. “All the schools are created equal. All of the case studies are the same, the books are the same, the professors all have Ph.D.s in their fields. The defining line is the quality of the student because the student sets the bar on discussions and how to interpret the material.”
Byrd-Hill is the president of Uplift Inc., which offers supplemental education to K-12 students. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan in 1989 and worked at for-profit and nonprofit companies for more than 20 years before starting MBA classes in 2012, first at Kaplan University and then at Strayer University.
Her experience was a definite advantage in her operational management class. Groups were assigned to fine-tune a business process into something more efficient. By happenstance, her group was made up of executives with years of business leadership experience. The other group was mostly composed of students straight out of undergrad.
When the final projects were presented, Byrd-Hill’s team had created a paper that could be put in front of a CEO. It analyzed the existing procedure and gave recommendations on what could be done to make it more efficient based on what every member had done in his or her own career. The less-experienced team took a far more theoretical approach, critiquing the theory behind what a company was doing rather than giving concrete solutions. After all, that was all the younger students knew because their education had likely been limited to textbooks and lectures.
That’s not to say there’s no place for fresh graduates in MBA programs. Byrd said young people bring fresh ideas and energy. In a business looking to create, younger people can add innovation. “But when you get into managing for-profits, you need someone with the knowledge of how a business runs,” she said.
The only way to get that kind of knowledge is by living it, either as an employee, intern or apprentice. My own experience backs up that idea. I’m still fairly new to my current role, and never in my four years at the University of Missouri did I see myself going into business reporting. But here I am, and I’ve found the hands-on experience I got interning for a Chicago magazine, reporting for a daily newspaper and editing a weekly city magazine contributes to what I do every day.
I’m far less experienced in business functions, however, so when I write any feature, I mine experience and knowledge from the people who take the time to talk to me. Hearing their opinions and perspectives, I can draw conclusions about how to fix the skill gap, but without their expertise I’m like those young MBA students who hand in a theoretical paper because I haven’t lived it. That’s not unusual for a journalist, but business professionals don’t have that luxury.
“College by itself was never created to give skills,” Byrd-Hill said. “It was to create the theory of what happens and why. … Nothing replaces experience.”