Miércoles 27 de Septiembre de 2006, Ip nº 172

Getting Creative

Earning an M.B.A. degree may seem like all work and no play. But some students are clearly having fun these days, as business schools break free from the traditional routine of lectures, case studies and spreadsheets.

During the past school year, M.B.A. students at U.S. and European schools have cooked a gourmet French meal, built sandcastles on the beach, visited the Musee du Louvre, and filmed a parody of "The Wizard of Oz."

No doubt such projects sound rather frivolous. But professors believe they encourage creativity and innovation, as well as offer students engaging experiences involving teamwork, leadership, organizational behavior, even operations management.

"Understanding the creative process is of great importance whether you want to be an entrepreneur or not," says Valerie Gauthier, associate dean at the HEC School of Management outside Paris. "We need to open M.B.A. students' minds and make them think more broadly."

Some schools expose students to the creative arts through guest speakers and excursions to museums. Lecturers at the IEDC-Bled School of Management in Slovenia have included an orchestra conductor, sculptor, film director and poet. For its "global manager in Europe" summer program, France's Essec Business School took students to the Louvre to study "European values, aesthetics and finance" through French and Dutch paintings.

Other schools favor a more hands-on experience. HEC Paris, for example, has established an artist-in-residence program to foster a creative culture at the school. This year, HEC student teams in organizational-behavior classes created artwork with political and globalization themes that the visiting artist critiqued.

In another organizational-behavior assignment, HEC students demonstrated their culinary talents. Under the direction of the campus chef, they served an elegant dinner -- salad with duck, beef bourguignon, and a dessert of crème anglaise, meringue and caramel -- to more than 100 guests. Later, they viewed video recordings of the dinner and discussed their experiences in the kitchen.

"Although I was skeptical at first, I realize that we actually learned quite a bit," says Alan De Paulo, an HEC student who found his work on the dessert team enjoyable but a bit stressful. "In preparing the dessert, which was a very difficult dish to make, we were put in an unfamiliar situation that required us to show creativity, leadership and an ability to manage people."

Some corporate recruiters see value in such creative challenges. "As a beauty-products company, we are focused on creativity and innovation and would be very interested in people who went through those kinds of experiences in school and thrived," says David Greenberg, senior vice president, human resources, for L'Oreal USA. "Imagination is a very special thing, and we always try to find students with that ability." L'Oreal frequently puts its own managers through creative exercises, from playing percussion instruments to making tiramisu. It also plans an M.B.A. recruiting event in New York in January that will include a test of students' culinary creativity and a seminar on creativity in business.

The University of Chicago's Graduate School of Business, renowned for its rigorous quantitative curriculum, recognizes that students also need to be let loose on less structured, creative projects. As part of its leadership development program, M.B.A. students produce short movies about their experiences at the school and compete for a Golden Gargoyle award. "They show their creativity in the script writing and acting," says Deputy Dean Stacey Kole, "and they practice leadership and project management skills in getting the film completed."

Last fall's winning film gave "The Wizard of Oz" tale an M.B.A. twist, depicting the lion as a confused career changer, the tin man as an investment banker looking for a heart, and the scarecrow as a marketer trying to become more quantitative. The wicked witch used statistics to trip them up, and the wizard turned out to be the dean of the school.

Operations management can be pretty technical, but one class on the West Coast is putting theory into practice in a very playful way. Each year, M.B.A. students at the University of California at Irvine spend a day at the beach sculpting sandcastles. That may sound simple enough, but it isn't exactly child's play. The class must follow exact specifications and construct castles fit for a king, complete with moat, bridge, turrets and towers.

Student leaders assign the various tasks-- hauling water from the ocean, scooping and packing sand, and doing the fine detail work -- to individual team members. "The teams have to decide whether to have specialized workers or flexible workers who can do more than one job," says Reynold Byers, the teacher who developed the sandcastle contest. "That makes an instant connection with the theory they studied in class about cross-training and specialization."

There are complications along the way: The castle specifications get updated, requiring rebuilding, and the teams must fire one member and pick a replacement. The ocean tide may also cause havoc.

In the heat of competition, frenzied students sometimes pelt each other with sand, shovels and pails, says Dr. Byers. "It's physically and mentally demanding, and a great way to integrate operations management and organizational behavior."

  12/09/2006. The Wall Street Journal Online.