When a catastrophe visits the commercial world, the call goes out to Business schools to revise their curricula. Boesky, Milken, Barings, WorldCom, Enron, Lehmann, Madoff……..Less of this, more of that and so begins the dance to revise the curriculum. On other occasions, Deans eager to leave their mark, set the train in motion. Sometimes, ennui and the contempt born of familiarity are enough to prompt a revision.

Being engaged with some of my colleagues in a reinvention of one of our core courses has prompted me to think about the entire curriculum. Rethinking the curriculum is also in the air. A number of well known B-schools, have recently made (supposedly) dramatic changes to their curriculum.

Do these changes ever make a difference? Perhaps. More often, not.  Some basic knowledge of finance, accounting, marketing, operations and the soft skills are de rigeur. Interpreting data, dealing with uncertainty and a knowledge of markets also seem essential. Not much room left to tinker with. One can reallocate the emphasis between these topics and play with how they are delivered (by pairing, for example, instructors from different areas) not much more.

So, if one wanted to have a significant impact on students, what would I urge? Not  playing with the make up of the curriculum. This is like moving model soldiers on a map. Gives the impression of motion but without advancement. It is what happens in the trenches that determines advancement; execution in the classroom.

By execution I don’t just mean good delivery. Delivery is important to keep students engaged and interested. But, we have reached the point of diminishing returns on this dimension. Rather, I would urge a focus on developing set of skills, at the risk of being quoted out of context, that I associate with the best Ph.D.students. Specifically:

Problem identification and framing. The ability to take a vague, messy `issue’ and frame it as a compelling problem capable of resolution or action.

When first I began `professing’ (giants ruled the earth), I saw myself as delivering medicine. Good for the students, though they did not know it. I was the spoonful of sugar needed to make it go down. I succeeded, only to discover, that I wasn’t a spoonful sugar, but chinese take away. At terms’s end, the students were empty again. Oddly enough, it was consulting gigs and supervising PhD students that made me realize, I had it wrong. It wasn’t knowledge of this, that and the other that added value. Lots of other people know the same things as I do, many know it better. My comparative advantage was asking questions that prompted my respondents to distill their `issues’ into concrete problems. Conversations with potential employees, admittedly anecdotal, are consistent with this view.

If I’m right, what does that mean in the classroom? A greater emphasis on  ill-posed problems in order to learn how to reframe them in a way that one can do something about them. Less emphasis on pattern matching and recipes. In short, discomfort for students. To combine the sentiments of two of my colleagues (Al-Najjar and Besanko): thinking is painful, embrace the pain. For faculty, much greater demands on one’s concentration in the class. Why? Because one has to comprehend and identify the weaknesses of others arguments in real time. Furthermore, having identified the weakness, determining out how to reveal it through cross questioning the respondent.

Adherents of the case method will justly argue that the skills I emphasize are precisely the ones that the case method is supposed to amplify. With some reservation I agree.  In any case, I am agnostic about `method’. Rather, I emphasize the objective: problem identification and framing.