Project‐Based MBA Program:
Preparing Executives to Lead
“Tell me, and I will forget.
Show me, and I may remember.
Involve me, and I will understand.”
February 28, 20 10
IntroductionWestminster Collegeʹs project‐based MBA program is designed to prepare executives for real‐world leadership in todayʹs global business market. Executives in market‐ leading firms must be able to develop and execute strategy in dynamic marketplaces; it is no longer sufficient to merely understand business. Westminster Collegeʹs project‐based MBA program requires student to not only learn business, but to apply that learning in real‐ world business situations. Through application, students gain experience and expertise across different business contexts. The project‐based approach is markedly different from most traditional programs, where students primarily learn in a lecture/classroom format, and demonstrate understanding of concepts on exams or theoretical simulations. In a project‐based program, merely knowing is not sufficient; far more important is the ability to apply learning just as todayʹs top executives do ‐ in a real‐world situation, with real competitors and markets.
The Program DesignIn 2006, Westminster College began working on the project‐based format for the MBA program. Faculty members started by developing an inventory of the skills and abilities executives must possess to lead dynamic global firms. Faculty members then worked with business executives to develop a series of projects through which students are able to learn, apply and develop mastery of executive skills and abilities. Instead of orienting the projects to classes, faculty built projects that mirror the look and cross‐functionality of the real world. By design, when students complete the full sequence of projects, they have demonstrated mastery of what is in the traditional MBA curriculum as well as the skills and abilities required in todayʹs global business environment. The project orientation used in the program is not new in the education world; historically, it has been prohibitively expensive to deliver because it requires high levels of individualized coaching and learning measurement. For these reasons, most schools choose not to use a project‐ based approach. Westminster College chose the project‐ based model because it leads to superior education results. The expense is controlled by the inclusion of cutting‐edge delivery technology. When students start a project sequence, they begin by attending a residency with faculty Coaches, a 2‐4 day on‐campus period in which faculty members introduce project requirements and work individually with students to understand projects, business knowledge associated with projects, and professional skills used in the projects. During the entire 18‐24 month program, students spend approximately 15‐ 20 days in on‐campus residencies –
February 28, 20 10 retaining the flexibility required for working professionals, while ensuring students have the information and resources they need to successfully navigate the program and project sequences. Of course, students can additionally meet with faculty as needed to get further coaching and advising. Students learn project‐related business knowledge and skills using online learning resources provided by Westminster College. They then apply that knowledge to real‐ world business projects with the individual coaching and mentoring of a faculty member. Faculty members are able to personally customize instruction and mentorship to the individual student, based on the studentʹs educational and professional background. Students achieve mastery of business skills and abilities through intense interaction and evaluation with faculty members. Faculty are able to work individually with students to build not only fundamental business abilities, but also professional skill sets in areas such as managing projects, leading teams, presenting, writing, negotiating, facilitating, as well as many other skills critical for executive success ‐ areas very difficult to develop in traditional classroom‐based programs. Personal coaching and advising, coupled with application‐oriented real‐world business projects, means that the student completing the Westminster College project‐based MBA program leaves prepared with the base knowledge set and the ability to apply knowledge and executive skills to whatever business environment encountered. This rich and personal educational experience fulfills what executives say future leaders must remember:
The Project‐Based MethodologyThere are three central tenets used in the project‐based programs: no grades, no classes, and no tests. Students working on real‐world business projects are building their experience and skill by learning how theory is augmented and adjusted when being applied to real‐world situations. It is possible to learn how to ski by watching a video; actually skiing will help you understand the nuance of skiing in different conditions and terrains. Thus, as it is in business. The methodology of the program is built on basic skills and abilities ‐ called ʺcompetenciesʺ. A list of approximately 70 competencies serves as the overall core of the program, providing the structure and direction to projects. Each project a student completes requires them to learn and then master, through application, some subset of these competencies. For example, a project may Far more important than what you merely know is what you can DO with what you know.
February 28, 20 10 require the student to build a financial forecast for a new product or service. Completion of this project requires the student to demonstrate mastery of several cross‐functional competencies: Building and interpreting financial statements Using data tools to analyze information Formulating assumptions based on market conditions Projecting revenues and expenses The project may also require the student to learn and master other skills as well, such as presenting the results to executives, or preparing a written strategic analysis based on the results. Since each project is mapped to a subset of competencies, the completion of all projects means that the student has demonstrated mastery of each competency several times. When the student starts the project, they initially read a project scenario ‐ a description that lays out the situation and describes what the student must do to complete the project. Based on this, the student is able to quickly determine what related topics and subjects theyʹll need to master in the project. Some of these topics may already be familiar to the experienced student; in such cases, students apply what they know and spend their time learning the margin of unfamiliar material. When a topic is unfamiliar, students use Westminster Collegeʹs online on‐demand business knowledge database to access readings, cases, videos, simulations, exercises, and other learning resources to master the basic knowledge. They then work individually or with others to assemble the knowledge in the project. Central to this method is the Faculty Coach ‐ any time the student has questions or requires clarification, they contact their coach for assistance ‐ using telephone, email, IM, real‐time video chat, or via face‐ to‐face meetings, at the convenience of the student. The Coach helps the student clarify instructions or material, and the student completes their work. When the student is ready, they submit their project work to their Coach, who then evaluates it according to the projectʹs related competencies. If the student has successfully demonstrated mastery, the Coach lets the student know, and the student moves to the next project. When mastery has not been successfully demonstrated, the faculty member gives thorough feedback and results to the student ‐ who is then given the opportunity to repair their work based on the feedback. The project is resubmitted to the Coach. Letʹs revisit the three tenets: no grades, no classes, and no tests. No grades: when a student gets a C in a course, what does that mean? That the student sort of understands the material? In a finance course, does a C mean that the student can
February 28, 20 10 ʺsort ofʺ read a financial statement, but not completely? This program throws away the ambiguity of grades, requiring mastery of concepts. Mastery means just what it says ‐ ‐ students are required to demonstrate a very high level of learning as well as the ability to apply that learning to varying scenarios and applications. Itʹs very important to remember, though, that mastery is not required on the first attempt ‐ students work with their Coach to get their work up to a mastery level, without penalty if early submissions arenʹt quite at the mastery level. No classes: students in this program are preparing for executive level careers ‐ they are typically employed and have a full complement of life commitments. The program is designed so that student can acquire basic knowledge at times and places convenient to them. Westminster Collegeʹs business intelligence database is available 24/7, from anywhere around the world. Faculty Coaches are then available as needed to help the student contextualize and incorporate the learning into the projects. No tests: tests are very limiting; this program requires demonstration of learning, across multiple contexts. Just as the surgeon learns more about the body each time they perform surgery, students in this program continue to learn through each application of a business principle across multiple projects. Tests are quite often unable to get at this highest level of learning required through projects. Tests are also often a one chance undertaking. If the student doesnʹt perform well on a test, that grade is quite often permanent. In this program, students work with their Coach to achieve mastery level in an iterative manner. The secret to student success in this program is the interaction between the student and the Coach ‐ the Coach helps the student customize the knowledge to their own individual use, based on the studentʹs unique business and educational background, and the studentʹs chosen career path. The Coach can customize knowledge and learning to the individual student. The methodology is easy to capture in a graphic, because it is quite straightforward: The Student: Reads project Learns Consults Coach Completes Project Is evaluated Moves to next project
February 28, 20 10 Upon completion of the full set of projects, the student has demonstrated mastery of the full set of competencies, and is then prepared to lead tomorrowʹs dynamic global business. This methodology enables the inclusion of executive abilities rarely available in traditional programs. Students build, apply, and demonstrate mastery of applied executive skills such as: Managing projects Leading teams Facilitation Negotiation Presenting/Writing Decision making Formulating strategy Implementing strategy Given the requirement for context‐sensitive application, project‐based programs require learning at the analyzing and evaluating levels, the higher levels of learning according to Benjamin Bloom, illustrated in the graphic below1. 1 Krathwohl, D. R, Anderson, L. W. 2001. A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing: A Revision of Bloomʹs Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. According to Bloom, learning at the highest levels is learning that can be retained, contextualized and applied repeatedly. Conversely, learning at the lower levels is quickly forgotten or difficult to apply beyond memorization. Traditional education that relies on lecture and testing typically achieves only the lowest levels, at ʺunderstandingʺ and ʺrememberingʺ. Westminster Collegeʹs project‐based MBA program consistently requires mastery at the ʺcreatingʺ and ʺevaluatingʺ levels, by design. In projects, students engage in the act of creation, requiring the application of cross‐functional knowledge and skills. Students master the basic knowledge, and then apply that knowledge across multiple contexts to truly develop mastery at the highest levels of learning.
Comparison to Traditional
ProgramsTraditional course and lecture‐based models are derived from the industrial model ‐ mass production, or ʺone size fits allʺ. They donʹt typically take into account the abilities a student may have acquired through their professional or educational background. Even an accountant typically has to sit through the accounting courses, relearning what they already know. Project‐based programs recognize that the professional has some competency, and allows the application of that learning without the need to relearn. In a project, Hi g he r Lea rni n g
February 28, 20 10 students concentrate on those parts they are unfamiliar with, and demonstrate what they already know in their project work. The experienced professional may complete a particular project faster than a peer. The fundamental differences between traditional and project‐based learning can be summarized in the following table: Traditional Programs Westminsterʹs Project‐ Based Program Requires ʺsufficientʺ learning Requires demonstrated mastery Is organized in courses, based on textbook content Is organized in projects, mirroring the real business world Measures what you know through tests Measures what you can DO through application Requires regular classroom attendance Allows for learning anywhere, anytime as convenient for the student. Based on “one‐size fits all” lectures Allows students to focus their time where needed Instead of a mass production approach, the project‐based approach allows for ʺmass customizationʺ in that students can customize their approach and learning, given what they already know and where they wish to go with their career. The faculty Coach helps the student make the most out of the experience. There are multiple studies available that demonstrate that students educated in the traditional model are ill‐prepared with the skills required in todayʹs global market. For instance, in AAC&Uʹs 2010 Report ʺRaising the Barʺ2, global employers feel that higher education graduates are ill‐prepared in areas such as: Knowledge of human cultures and the physical/natural world Intellectual and practical skills Personal and social responsibility Integrative learning The personal approach and the structure of projects are designed to build exactly these types of skills. Another study3 of corporate recruiters by the Graduate Management Admissions Council, lists a similar skill gap: General business functions Managing decision making processes Interpersonal skills Learning, leadership, and motivation Strategic and system skills Managing teams and projects The personal nature of the project‐based model allows for individual faculty‐student mentorship to improve these skills. Projects also required demonstrated mastery in these skills areas, allowing students to learn and practice these skills throughout the program, building expertise and mastery. The personalization of the Westminster College approach allows for graduates who are better suited to meet the needs of tomorrowʹs global executive. 2 AAC&U. 2010. Raising the Bar: Employersʹ Views on College Learning in the Wake of the Economic Downturn. January 20. 3 GMAC. 2007. Corporate Recruiters Survey.
February 28, 20 10
The Role of Faculty: CoachingCentral to this program is the role of the faculty member. Instead of providing a standard lecture to a diverse set of students, faculty members orient their time and expertise to assist individual students toward mastery. Students learn through the use of learning resources in the business intelligence database; faculty members personally assist students where and when needed to build appropriate ability to apply knowledge to situations. This approach allows students to apply what they already know, to learn where and when convenient, and have very personal coaching with a faculty member whenever required. Faculty members consistently interact with students to make sure students are progressing at their preferred rate. Faculty members develop significant and personal relationships with students to help students achieve professional goals. The role of learning assessment is also different for faculty members serving as Coaches. Instead of assigning a grade to a project, the faculty Coach is identifying whether or not the student has demonstrated mastery of the related competencies. When the competencies are not met, the Coach provides thorough and detailed feedback to the student to help achieve mastery. The primary motivation of the faculty Coach is to help the student be successful; Coaches are willing to provide whatever clarification or resources they can to help the student successfully complete their projects.
The Role of the StudentThis model requires a different approach on the part of the student. Traditional programs typically allow the student to take a passive role in the educational process ‐ the faculty member actively transmits the essential course knowledge to the student, and the student receives that knowledge. The student then demonstrates some degree of knowledge back to the professor to demonstrate sufficient absorption. In project‐based programs, the student takes an active role, engaging learning activities to develop basic mastery of the knowledge, and then synthesizing that learning in their project to demonstrate mastery to their coach. The Faculty Coach is available where and when the student needs it ‐ but the student must assist in the identification of these times, requiring an active communication role by the student. Project‐based program are typically difficult for students who merely want to complete a degree ‐ they require far too much work. Students who, on the other hand, truly want to master the skills needed to lead global businesses are who are willing to invest the time and energy needed to achieve mastery are quite successful in these programs.
February 28, 20 10