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The art of integrative thinking

education Updated: Sep 28, 2011 10:45 IST
Ayesha Banerjee
Ayesha Banerjee
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

A winning idea definitely works in helping a B-school attract talent from across the globe.

For Toronto University’s Rotman School, its curriculum built around ‘integrative thinking’ is shaping up students for future leadership roles and helping the institute reach out to underprivileged communities.

Integrative thinking, says Suzanne Spragge, Rotman’s assistant dean, external relations, “teaches our students to be better at solving complex and messy problems. If they have just two solutions (both of which they don’t much like), they are encouraged to pause, think and then consider alternatives”. Don’t pick a solution just because you have to. Think up more ideas and “pick bits of each”. Find out if there are possibilities of working out a third solution and then come up with ideas to solve the problem.

This helps students improve their problem-solving and troubleshooting skills, “and they learn (how) to think”, says Spragge.

Students who are part of the two-year MBA programme are allowed to structure two courses according to their likes and have managed to do some great work in India with Dilip Soman, professor of marketing, by applying integrative thinking to their projects.

A behavioural economist by training, and IIM-Ahmedabad alumnus, Soman is interested in the Indian economy and designs interesting student experiences that are based on some of the work he does.

“If a student comes to me and says he is interested in rural marketing, I tell him, ‘let’s pick a village and design a product that would, say, help a farmer or a labourer save money; or work on some device that sends reminders to people in rural areas to seek medical advice’,” says Soman.

Some projects are progressing well. Soman looks at ways to help people in the unbanked economy in rural India, typically agricultural farmers and small-lot holders.

Some earn R100 a day (when they find work), and live from payday to payday, spending all their earnings in that period. Then they take loans, spend that money and take another loan to pay off the first loan. To them, it’s more of a term-loan as opposed to a goal-specific loan. This leads them to a debt trap.

Taking cues from mental accounting, Soman and his student teams have been teaching villagers and labourers to segregate money in different envelopes for different purposes, marking these as ‘savings’, ‘children’s education’, and keeping them in different places. Those who are still not able to save are given envelopes with pictures of their children pasted on them – a simple psychological mechanism to motivate them to put aside money for the education or marriage of their progeny. More solutions are worked out if these initiatives also fail. When labourers living in shacks complained of their money getting stolen, Soman and his team came up with the idea of a bag that could be concealed inside a steel cupboard. A folder with various slots came in handy for those who wanted to save more.

Integrative thinking teaches a student to think about thinking itself, says Spragge. If you are working in a team, then look at how your teammate approaches a problem, and how you approach it. You have to understand not just your own model and your own way of thinking, but understand your teammate’s way of thinking, as well. You should be able to incorporate that into your solution. “Everyone comes to the table with different models and different ways of seeing the world and instead of choosing between all these different models, and choosing between imperfect solutions, think about how you could take bits of them all to make something that’s better,” she says. “Roger (Martin), our dean, has been with the school for 13 years and integrative thinking is something borne out of his thinking, his experience in the business school,” Spragge adds.

What’s deeply satisfying for Soman, who is also senior fellow at the Desautels Centre of Integrative Thinking at Rotman, is that many of these so-called ‘deprived’ classes now have enough money saved to think of opening bank accounts. “Four farmers in Maharashtra have now developed their own savings mechanism through a rotating savings plan. Each farmer contributes R200-R300 to a savings pool and every month one gets the money out of this fund to buy something his family needs urgently. They even took the initiative to urge the State Bank of India to open a mobile branch in their village. So, everyone there is now talking about mobile banking,” Soman says.

Factfile
Located in Toronto, Canada, North America’s third-largest financial centre, Rotman is known for its MBA programme, which is now ranked among the top 15 in North America by the Financial Times. The Rotman MBA is available in five formats: a full-time two-year MBA; a part-time three-year morning MBA and a three-year evening MBA; a one-year executive MBA, designed for senior managers; and the Omnium global executive MBA, which is delivered in eight key centres of international business in six countries. Also on offer is a master of finance, which trains global finance leaders of the future and a doctoral programme, the Rotman PhD. For more information, got to www.rotman.utoronto.ca