Solving the MBA Teaching Riddle

By Thomas A. Grossman

The second of an occasional series aimed at making management science the best course in the business school.

In a previous Issues in Education column [October 2001, Vol. 28, No. 5] I discussed the importance of relevance to the future of the business school OR/MS course. To summarize, the OR/MS course must be relevant in the eyes of the MBA dean, the curriculum committee, students and alumni. Traditional OR/MS as practiced by management science experts is unfortunately irrelevant to the activities of general managers and MBA students.

The Relevance Riddle

I ended the last column with the following riddle for instructors: "How can managers without extensive OR/MS training harness the power of OR/MS?"

There are many ways to answer this riddle. Here are a few of them. (You can easily learn more about these approaches, because these folks have all written articles in OR/MS Today, Interfaces or INFORMS Transactions on Education.)

- Chris Albright and Wayne Winston at the Kelley School (Indiana) use inductive learning to teach spreadsheet OR/MS models across disciplines.
- Peter Bell at the Ivey School (Western Ontario) teaches case-based strategic OR/MS.
- Cliff Ragsdale at Virginia Tech uses management science as an entrée into decision support systems.
- Robert Carraway, Dana Clyman and Sherwood Frey at the Darden School (Virginia) use business-oriented cases where management science is a vehicle for business insight.
- Matt Liberatore and Bob Nydick at Villanova use real-world projects and non-spreadsheet software.
- Ken Baker and Steve Powell at the Tuck School (Dartmouth) focus on the art of modeling and integration with other disciplines.
- Thomas Grossman and his colleagues at Calgary focus on integration, end-user modeling and real-world projects.

There is a diversity of emphasis, pedagogical technique and software in the teaching approaches described above. However, these successful instructors have two commonalities in their approach: provision of context and capabilities.

First, they embed models in a business context, exploring issues of intrinsic interest to business students and managers. The flip side of this coin is the discipline to limit material of intrinsic interest to OR/MS specialists. It is essential that instructors learn to distinguish between these two divergent interests.

Second, they provide students with hands-on capabilities valuable to general managers including modeling from scratch, spreadsheet software, creation and communication of business insight, and connection to other MBA disciplines. Students should be able to articulate their new capabilities and value them highly.

Our challenge is to make MBA's more effective leaders and managers by equipping them to do things that only we can teach. We need to deliver to our business students robust general-purpose tools that help them deal with whatever comes their way. We need to avoid specialized tools useful only in rare circumstances.

We can teach business students useful skills including modeling, business analytics, thinking more clearly about their spreadsheets, sensitivity analysis and model exploration, modeling for insight not for numbers, communicating analytical results, how to think about risk, and using model results to drive change. We can integrate with finance, marketing, economics, organizational behavior and other MBA courses. Our traditional tools are not on this list. The tools are a means to an end, not an end in itself.

For OR/MS to thrive in business schools, we need basic research in three important areas.
- Fundamentals of modeling. The foundation of OR/MS is modeling. We need to teach modeling to business students. However, there is little research on models, their properties and their creation.
- End-user modeling. How does the use of OR/MS tools by MBA's and other non-experts differ from use by OR/MS professionals? Is there a set of principles we can use to guide end-user modelers?
- Spreadsheet engineering. Love them or hate them, spreadsheets rule the business world and OR/MS has to come to terms with them. We urgently require workable, realistic best practices for design, programming, error-prevention, maintenance, and documentation of spreadsheet models. The computer science and MIS communities have largely ignored spreadsheet programming.
OR/MS instructors with strong connections to recent graduates and clear understanding of managerial issue may be well positioned to take the first steps in these emerging and highly relevant research areas.

Tom Grossman of the University of Calgary is president of INFORM-ED. He can be reached at

Further Reading

- Thomas Willemain researches how experts create models in "Insights on Modeling from a Dozen Experts," Operations Research, Vol. 42, No. 2, pgs. 213-222, March-April 1994.
- Steve Powell argues that the heart of OR/MS is the art of reasoning logically with models in, "Teaching Modeling in Management Science," INFORMS Transactions on Education, Vol. 1, No. 2:, 2001.
- Ray Panko provides data on error rates in spreadsheet models in, "What We Know About Spreadsheet Errors,", 2000
- Field research on how a business student applied OR/MS is described by Calvin Sonntag and Thomas Grossman in, "End User Modeling Improves R&D; Management at AgrEvo Canada, Inc.," Interfaces, Vol. 29, No. 5, pgs. 132-142, 1999.