This post is about the rise of joint or dual degree programs as a strategy to get graduates an edge by equipping with a unique breadth (rather than depth) of skills in the workforce.
The first joint/dual program I ever heard about when I first moved to the U.S. many years ago was the Leaders for Manufacturing Program at M.I.T. (now retitled MIT Leaders for Global Operations or LGO), so I’ll start with that. Technically, this one is a dual program, not a joint one. (Although the distinction between joint and dual programs blurs easily, joint programs tend to have courses specifically designed for the purpose of the program, while dual programs involve pre-existing courses from each participating department.)
The MIT LFM now LGO program was launched in 1998 to “develop technically oriented leaders who would help strengthen the U.S. manufacturing industry in the face of emerging global competition” (quoted from the website) and was expanded to “reflect the rise of service-based companies as well as the increasingly global orientation of operations and manufacturing.” It provides students with a MBA from the Sloan School of Management along with a Master of Science in an engineering discipline and is “the nation’s leading graduate, dual-degree program in engineering and management innovation.” Because each facet of the program leads to a degree, whether MBA or MS, with its own requirements, neither the business or the engineering education gets diluted or shortchanged.
The program relies on a strong connection with partner companies, which provide students with a six-month on-site internship - the cornerstone of the program, in the summer and fall semesters of their second year, following initial site visits in the spring. The students subsequently write Master’s theses (not simple reports) on their projects. Examples of theses include:
- Development of a risk management system for consumables used in biopharmaceutical manufacturing,
- Forward thinking in reverse: Design, implementation and continuous monitoring of a closed-loop supply chain using optimization, simulation and dashboard systems to maximize net recovery,
- Simulation modeling to predict drug pipeline throughput in early pharmaceutical R&D.
Nowadays it has become common practice to talk about design thinking as a key tool in fostering innovation, a trend that emerged from Stanford’s pioneering d.school (design school). It actually doesn’t grant degrees, let alone joint ones, so falls outside the scope of this post (however, a Master program in design is part of the Mechanical Engineering department), but joint programs with a design flavor include a M.B.A./M.A. program in Design Leadership, run jointly between the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School and the Maryland Institute of Art, as well as a Master’s in Strategic Design and Management by Parsons the New School for Design. This is in addition to M.B.A. electives on design thinking taught at institutions such as the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management for years.
The dual Johns Hopkins/MICA program is touted as “the MBA for both sides of your brain,” the result of a partnership to “link business management fundamentals with the creative approach to thinking and problem solving used by the world’s top designers.” The JHU/MICA program creators make the argument that “new approaches are needed to solve today’s complex global business challenges, and traditional MBA programs only offer traditional instruction.” It is not a bad argument - does the old MBA degree need a rethink?
The 20-month, 66-credit joint MBA/MA program in design leadership seeks to “make innovation [the] standard mode of operation” of students in the program and “enrolls students who want to be transformative business leaders at the highest levels by developing a next-generation approach to management and problem solving." While the Johns Hopkins part of the curriculum provides the usual courses in corporate finance and marketing, staples of MBA programs everywhere, MICA educates students in the foundation of design leadership (the very first course the cohort takes when entering the program), collaboration and multidisciplinarity, creativity and innovation, visualization and prototyping, sustainability and social responsibility, as well as competitive advantage.
An 2012 article in Ad Age about the JHU/MICA program provides glimpses in design thinking -- for instance, the day the reporter visited, students picked “personas” for an assignment, “fictional characters used by designers to represent different demographics that are created by consulting ethnographic research and people watching.” How they chose to present these personas to the class ranged from a Facebook profile to the content of someone’s handbag. They then discussed and demonstrated the problems their persona faced at the two places they were tasked with transforming: the gas station and the post office. The program is structured so that the students take courses as a cohort at MICA, but are spread among various sections at the JHU business school, thus sharing design concepts with their business peers more easily.
Parsons the New School of Design offers its Master of Science in Strategic Design and Management, to “prepar[e] students to confidently create, manage and lead design process-driven organizations.” Its goal is to incorporate design thinking, service design and sustainability through 36 credits of coursework in business and design-centered studio work.
This growing trend in joint or dual programs aims at providing students with a structured dual education for greater competitive advantage. This is in sharp contrast with the traditional educational model relying on majors and minors, with independent course sequences that give students complementary skills but may not lead to a cohesive whole combining major and minor. The increase of joint or dual programs suggests that a key value of traditional higher education is becoming the creation of high-impact cross-disciplinary partnerships, opening doors and spurring collaborations.
But even in the realm of joint/dual programs, the question of which programs should be “joined” remains open to debate. Should design thinking be combined with the business approach of MBAs? or the technological skills of Master’s students in engineering? What about doctoral students? What if design thinking turns out to have been a fad, and next decade's fad is instead to, say, combine management and history?