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Prepare to manage the unforseen

Management schools need to be forward looking and factor in novel and unprecedented business challenges, says Thomas S Robertson

education Updated: May 22, 2012 19:38 IST

What are the benefits gained by international students from an MBA in a top management institute?
I believe that learning is maximised under conditions of diversity. At Wharton, we have a unique opportunity to bring together future leaders from all backgrounds and cultures to engage in rigorous learning, self-reflection and debate. Educating the business, NGO and public policy leaders of the future means cultivating all the available talent, from all over the world.

As someone helming the institute since 2007, and being a management expert who has, among other achievements, been credited with positioning Emory’s Goizueta Business School as an international leader in business education, what are the biggest changes that you have witnessed in management education in your career? Is there something that you would want to do differently?
In my time as Dean in both institutions, I have seen that you cannot rely on a rigid set of teaching tools. The business world is changing rapidly and business schools need to adapt to learning and teaching in this environment. At Wharton, we have an Innovation Initiative to take advantage of the wealth of emerging opportunities for innovation in education and scholarship. This initiative also helps catalyse innovation related to the School’s educational, scholarly and social objectives. Business schools need to be innovative. For example, we recognise that many of our students will work in industries that do not exist presently. It is the responsibility of top business schools to provide students with flexibility that will help them move in new directions in a changing world.

How is Wharton keeping up with the times? As many parts of the world seem to be grappling with economic crises and global power seems to be making a shift from the northern to the southern hemisphere, are you looking to make drastic changes in and adding additional new courses in Wharton’s management education curriculum?
We have integrated into our curriculum, exposure to business challenges and opportunities in regions undergoing rapid change — for example, energy and infrastructure in Brazil, global supply chain management in China, building future markets in Africa, and marketing in emerging economies such as India and China.

Most business schools and global businesses have focused on the developed world, largely ignoring three-quarters of the world’s population. This mindset is shifting dramatically because it has become clear that the world’s future economic growth lies outside the developed nations. There are 200 countries in the world, and it is our responsibility to study the models of these regions, that have rapidly growing economies and offer the most global view to our students.

What do the words ‘success story’ mean to Wharton? Is success, for many top b-schools, all about how high alumni go up the Forbes World's billionaires list or is it something more? What is this 'more'?
Although appearing on such a list is, in itself an achievement; certainly for our 88,000 alumni around the world, success is determined from the core of our mission at Wharton — to take one’s knowledge gained here and have a positive influence on the world.

Keeping the question above in perspective, what would you list as one of Wharton’s biggest success stories? Please share it with us.
In 2011, for the first time in 17 years, the faculty by majority, approved change in the MBA curriculum. The school spent several years working on the curriculum overhaul. Wharton interviewed thousands of students, alumni, corporate executives and deans from as far away as Brazil, India, and China on how they foresaw the business world evolving in the next 20 years. The new curriculum offers our students greater flexibility in course choices, a more global experience, and increased expertise in areas such as ethics and analytics. We have also introduced the concept of Lifelong Learning as central to the education of a Wharton student.

One of your main responsibilities, I believe, ‘advancing Wharton as a force for social and economic good’. How can that be achieved? How much can research contribute to the cause? Can you elaborate on some research work in management schools that has the potential to change the world?
The events of the past few years have taught us that the “rules of business”— and therefore business education — can change rapidly. At Wharton, central to our mission is that business can and must be a force for good. People need to be able to develop the skills that will enable them to adapt to the changing marketplace. Business leaders in growing economies who seek to make a global impact will need to adapt to international business practices, regulations, and demands for transparency. This is where business schools should play a major role.

You have in the past, made considerable internationalisation efforts for Emory University and worked out alliances with China, Korea, and Ethopia. What are your plans and hopes when it comes to Wharton and India?
We have a large number of students from India. We have also had partnerships in the country, robust research initiatives and a large influential alumni base here. We were one of the founders of The Indian School of Business (ISB) in Hyderabad, where our faculties teach, and our students visit ISB as part of ongoing global modular courses in the region. I see continued partnerships with India as we explore further ways to share knowledge with our colleagues here and be a part of training business leaders in the country.

Thomas S Robertson is dean of the Wharton School and Reliance Professor of Management and Private Enterprise at the University of Pennsylvania, a position he has held since August 2007. A business school administrator and a member of the Wharton faculty from 1971 to 1994, he has long been a champion of international and interdisciplinary education. His focus has been to expand Penn’s global footprint