Cultural Change in Business School Curricula

Integrating multiple disciplinary approaches continues to be a challenge in higher education. Despite a growing number of disciplinary hybrids and many examples of successful multiple disciplinary teams, significant obstacles remain to creating integrated curricula. For me, this is a familiar challenge: Three years ago I began introducing design and anthropology to a business school curriculum. Not everyone on the faculty shared the dean’s vision to diversify the curricula. The school is ranked among the top three finance programs in the United States. Humanities and the social sciences are courses that students might take as electives; but they are not seen as subjects that should be included in a business curriculum. Radically different approaches to teaching and research, to what constitutes knowledge, and to how knowledge is produced create silos and obstacles that take time to overcome.

The concept of sustainability provided an important opening for anthropology. It has extended from the physical and material environment to society and business.

As a design anthropologist teaching in a business school, I’m a boundary spanner. Boundary spanners communicate and link new ideas to existing knowledge systems. This work involves not only introducing new concepts, tools, and modes of knowledge production, but also communicating and demonstrating their value within an existing system of recognized subfields, ranked journals, approved conferences, specialized language, normative research approaches, and a shared understanding as to what constitutes new knowledge. This is also innovation. Boundary spanning requires sustained effort: a long-term commitment to recognizing bias (including one’s own), being open to understanding different cultural logics and their value, earning respect, making friends, and finding allies among colleagues.

Teaching design anthropology in the business school context requires boundary spanning—translating anthropological concepts and design practices into terms, language, and activities that make sense and have value for (i.e., meets the needs of) business students. It means being an agent of cultural change while also contributing to the overall mission of the school.

I was teaching qualitative research methods and leading an MFA program in design management when I was recruited for this position. There, I came on board as an anthropologist to introduce human-centered design (HCD), which integrates social sciences into design and design research. I worked with designers and learned to integrate design practices and designerly ways of knowing into my work as an anthropologist. At the same time, my perspective as an anthropologist shaped how students interacted with their human subjects and understood interactions between what they deigned, human “users,” and the context of use. This coincided with trends within design that contextualize objects in their presentation: showing objects in use and in relation to other actors replaced glossy images of objects as standalone artifacts. Students’ portfolios showcasing time-honored design skills such as hand sketching, digital renderings and glossy photos of product prototypes began to reflect the HCD perspective by integrating storyboards, photos of user testing sessions, and people interacting with products in context.

“She Changes,” Matosinhos, Portugal. Dimitry B/Flickr CC BY 2.0

“Design thinking” has recently become a strategy for innovation that has received wide acceptance in the business world, thus becoming a desirable addition to business and management education. Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management, claimed that “we are on the cusp of a design revolution in business,” and as a result, “today’s business people don’t need to understand designers better, they need to become designers.” The growing importance of design in the business world made introducing design into the curricula relatively easy. Business programs and curricula respond to the perceived and stated needs of business, industry, and the employment market. The need to enroll students drives educational institutions and business schools in particular. However, integrating anthropology into business curricula was not as easy.

The connections between anthropology, business, and design are not obvious outside the field. Rather than tracing the development of human-centered research methods to their origins in anthropology, anthropology’s contributions to human-centered design (HCD) were typically limited to a notion of ethnography as a methodology used to gain a deeper understanding of “users.”

The concept of sustainability provided an important opening for anthropology. It has extended from the physical and material environment to society and business, expressed by the triple bottom line “People, Planet, Profit.” Human- and planet-centered approaches are now included in business education. This enabled the introduction of design as a fundamental business skill and of an applied anthropology that incorporates design practices.

Design thinking is a methodology used to solve problems and identify new opportunities by understanding people’s unmet needs. These problems often fall into the category of “wicked problems” that have complex interdependencies and many stakeholders (Buchanan 1992). The design thinking process, however, opens the problem space to imagining possible solutions by applying abductive logic, the logic of what might be.

Communicating the value of design and anthropology in business comes down to creating the conditions that allow students to experience business as fundamentally about understanding people.

Business students need to acquire skills in problem identification, not to mention project management, cultural competency, creative thinking, and written and verbal communication to help them get a job. To meet this need, I borrowed the idea of the design process book to guide students through the exploratory phase of concept development and business creation. The design process book is presented in a workbook format and completed in tandem with a text on “design thinking” for managers. This text introduces the design process along with design “tools” such as customer journey mapping, mind mapping, assumption testing, and rapid prototyping that can be applied at each phase. This creates an ideal opportunity to introduce anthropological concepts that are fundamental to human-centered design (HCD) as well as signature anthropological fieldwork methodologies. The design process book is not a conventional business plan. Instead, it is a process of discovery and exploration that constitutes the front end of business model innovation and new venture creation. This approach begins with a notion of a problem or unmet need—not a prescribed solution—and proceeds by developing a deep holistic understanding of the context (industry and markets) and people that are the fundamental basis of HCD.

Successful boundary spanning initiatives come down to addressing the needs and pragmatic concerns of various stakeholders. School administrators ask: Is the effort required worth the benefit gained? How will this impact our ability to compete for resources and the best faculty and students? Faculty members question how integrating anthropology and design will impact their courses, teaching, research, and publishing opportunities. Students ask: “How will this help me get a job?”

Communicating the value of design and anthropology in business comes down to creating the conditions that allow students to experience business as fundamentally about understanding people, deciphering cultural complexities and entanglements, and identifying spaces for imagining possibilities to co-creating with stakeholders. Business students in these classes don’t become anthropologists, but they learn to apply concepts of holism and reciprocity. They know that a business is more than financial statements. They learn the importance of the informed consent and ethical process. And they learn how to integrate this knowledge and these skills along with business fundamentals and the design process to gain a deeper understanding of human beings, to think in terms of both anticipated and unanticipated consequences, to participate in co-creating sustainable solutions, and to imagine and explore opportunities for innovation and new ventures that meet the triple bottom line of people, planet, and profit. These are good things.

Christine Miller is an Associate Clinical Professor of Innovation at the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Stuart School of Business. Working at the intersection of anthropology, business, and design, her research interests include socio-technical systems and the ways that sociality and culture influence the design of new products, processes, and technologies.

Further reading

Farraro, Gary P. and Elizabeth K. Briody. 2017. The Cultural Dimension of Global Business. New York: Routledge.

Liedtka, Jeanne and Tim Ogilvie. 2011. Designing for Growth: A Design Thinking Toolkit for Managers. New York: Columbia University Press.

Osterwalder, Alexanderand Yves Pigneur. 2010. Business Model Generation. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Jackson, Tim. 2009. Prosperity Without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet. Sterling, VA: Earthscan.

Reuther, Karen Korellis. 2011. People. Planet. Profit. Design Management Journal. 6:1. Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Cite as: Miller, Christine. 2017. “Cultural Change in Business School Curricula.” Anthropology News website, November 17, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.693

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