Undergraduate Business Schools Need Problem Solving Focus: Enhancing Strategy, Creativity and Resourcefulness

A top objective of undergraduate business schools should include preparing students to be highly productive to their future employers upon arrival, but there is a wide gap between academia and the real world today. Too much of today’s business school curriculum involves memorizing and regurgitating terminology or mechanically plugging numbers into formulas without any analysis. Far more valuable in preparing today’s business students to solve tomorrow’s business challenges is a curriculum that focuses on problem solving.

Lost Problem Solving Opportunities

An example of this gap was in a Corporate Finance course where I was instructed to follow the learning objectives developed by the course coordinator. Financial ratios are a standard topic [i.e., Current Ratio = Current Assets/Current Liabilities]. The students simply had to pick numbers from financial statements and perform math calculations for about 15 common ratios. That was it. The real-world application of financial ratios would be to first compute ratios for companies that share a common industry and relative size. The second step is analyzing the financial strengths and weaknesses by comparing the ratios between the companies in the study. Third is confirming the meaningfulness of these comparisons by verifying that their industry is comparable, and their relative size is similar, through some appropriate standard, such as annual sales, property units, square footage of operation, etc. Unfortunately like in many business school courses, these Corporate Finance students were robbed of worthwhile problem solving opportunities and only expected to mechanically “plug in” some numbers.

Realizing the Importance of Problem Solving Skills to Career Success

During the first session of a marketing class, I review the Core Purpose of the course:

  • Provide broad and comprehensive foundation in marketing management including technology driven topics.
  • Push students to become more strategic, more creative, and more resourceful problem solvers.
  • Strengthen presentation and Excel application skills through relevant use in weekly assignments.

Before covering the Core Purposes, I create a hypothetical situation based on a random student’s actual major. The results are always intriguing. Let’s say the student chosen is majoring in finance. His or her first position out of college is a management training program position with a prestigious bank at its headquarters. The student has just graduated with high grades from a university in Atlanta and starts in his or her position, along with three other undergraduates from esteemed business schools. I pose the following question and list their responses on the board. After continued querying to attempt to identify areas that are not “a given” for a highly competitive position out of college, I reveal my list of characteristics that are seldom mentioned—but that I know, from my substantial experience in the business world, are essential.

In the workplace, what characteristics truly separate peers from one another and result in being rewarded with more challenging work, more responsibility, rapid promotion, and elevated compensation?
How Students Typically Reply
(Usually Givens that all Peers Possess)
 What Paul Heller has Seen in the Real World
  • Hard work, long hours
  • Ability to get along with peers and supervisor(s)
  • Prior work experience
  • Intelligence
  • Strategic problem solving skills
  • Creative (problem solving)
  • Resourcefulness
  • Effective written and oral communication

After this class discussion, I introduce the course’s Core Purposes and focus on enhancing students’ problem solving skills to be more strategic, creative, and resourceful. These problem solving skills are what inevitably will allow students to get ahead faster than their peers in terms of being rewarded by more challenging assignments, rapid promotion, and elevated compensation.

Effectively Enhancing Problem Solving Skills

How do you enhance these problem solving skills, which drive future professional success the most? I have found that weekly graded assignments that involve mini-cases effectively accomplish this. (See Premium Attachment as example of a graded weekly assignment that covers a common Marketing Analysis of Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats [SWOT]. This assignment illustrates students being challenged to problem solve strategically, creatively, and resourcefully. It also shows students how to present their ideas in a professional presentation format.

Quite often, students struggle during the initial weeks; undergraduates have typically been “spoon-fed” in many of their previous courses. I had an interesting conversation with a conscientious senior, a pre-med/science major, taking my marketing class. I asked about how long the first two weekly mini-case assignments were taking, and she responded, “They are taking me longer than they should, up to seven or eight hours, but this is the first time in my college education that I’ve had to think outside the box.”

Over time, the majority of students realize how the constant dose of weekly assignments is developing their problem solving skills in conjunction with being applied to real world situations.  This acknowledgement is evidenced in some anonymous student surveys that follow; the second is the funniest comment I have received in all my semesters of teaching:

“I really like the fact that you give us real-world experience. I know that I will definitely use the skills you  are providing us in any job the future may bring. I’m not going to lie—it’s a lot of work and it’s tough with my job, but it is making me be responsible for myself.”

“Love this class even though it is hard as ballz and the homework is kicking my ass. I do feel like I am learning a lot.”

I studied electrical engineering as an undergraduate and never directly worked as an engineer except for summer positions while in college. Was it a waste of time? Absolutely not. Engineering school is an invaluable background for the business world and life in general, as it teaches you to be a creative and resourceful problem solver. Many engineering assignments are frustrating and often take multiple attempts to even make a dent in solving the problems. Through rigorous assignment curriculum, engineering disciplines force students to become diligent, creative, and resourceful problem solvers. The same should be true for business students.

Propelling Forward Student Problem Solving Skills to Tackle Tomorrow’s Challenges

Industry employs people to tackle tough, complex, and unsolved problems, and to recognize opportunities.

What are undergraduate business schools accomplishing by focusing testing on memorization and regurgitation, plugging numbers into equations, or solving straightforward exercises? Not much. To solve tomorrow’s challenges, industry needs our undergraduate business schools to focus on developing problem solving skills through frequent case work that enhances students’ creativity, resourcefulness, and ability to be strategic.




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