Design Matters for Management: so how do you adapt teaching with cases?

Today I was at a meeting for a case writing project in Management & Information Systems (CasIS) for the Swiss Virtual Campus. It was interesting since it brought together a couple of great people working at different Swiss Universities (there were only two Swiss of which I was one ;-)

At one point of the meeting some fundamental questions about case teaching/writing came up. It made me realize that case teaching in the management and IS disciplines are still mainly focused on the decision making and the decision argumentation process. However, while building decision making skills might still be important I think today's uncertain competitive environment requires the teaching of design skills on top of that. Design skills allow us to come up with additional solutions to a particular business situation or problem setting when the existing choices don't seem adequat for gaining a competitive edge.

But since Richard J. Boland & Fred Collopy explain this complementarity between decision skills and design skills in teaching much better than I do, I won't hesitate to quote from their book "Managing as Designing" once again:

Working with him [Frank Gehry] has led us to see how both management practice and education have allowed a limited and narrow vocabulary of decision making to drive an expansive and embracing vocabulary of design out of circulation. In our focus on teaching students advanced analytical techniques for choosing among alternatives, our attention to strengthening their design skills for shaping new alternatives has withered. What is needed in management practice and education today is the development of a design attitude, which goes beyond default solutions in creating new possibilities for the future.

then the authors beautifully outline why a design attitude is needed:

A decision attitude toward problem solving is used extensively in management education. It portrays the manager as facing a set of alternative courses of action from which a choice must be made. The decision attitude assumes it is easy to come up with alternatives to consider, but difficult to choose among them. The design attitude toward problem solving, in contrast, assumes that it is difficult to design a good alternative, but once you have developed a truly great one, the decision about which alternative to select becomes trivial. The design attitude appreciates that the cost of not conceiving of a better course of action than those that are already being considered is often much higher than making the “wrong” choice among them.

and finally the authors explain that times are changing and today is the right moment to introduce more design tools to management:

The decision attitude toward problem solving and the many decision-making tools we have developed for supporting it have strengths that make them suitable for certain situations. In a clearly defined and stable situation, when the feasible alternatives are well known, a decision attitude may be the most efficient and effective way to approach problem solving. But when those conditions do not hold, a design attitude is required. The decision attitude and the analytic tools managers have to support it were developed in a simpler time. They are the product of fifty years of concerted effort to strengthen the mathematical and scientific basis of management education. Today’s world is much different from that of the 1950s when the movement to expand analytic techniques in management began to flourish. We are suggesting that now is the time to incorporate a better balance of the two approaches to problem solving in management practice and education.

I think all this should translate into how our future business leaders are tought at our universities. Case studies could actually be quite an interesting approach to foster design skills. Hopefully, we will be able to bring some of this thinking into the CasIS project...

And those of you who didn't get enough of the extensive quotes from the article above can download the paper "Design Matters for Management" on the Web. It's the first paper in their book, which is a collection of texts on "Managing as Designing".

(The picture above was taken by Brad McCormick. It's a picture of the building designed by Frank Gehry for the Case Western University, which sparked the debate on managing as designing)