College and Business Will Never Be the Same

Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything he learned in school
Attributed to Albert Einstein, Mark Twain and B.F. Skinner

There are 4633 accredited, degree-granting colleges and universities in the United States. This weekend I had dinner last night with one of them – a friend who’s now thePresident of Philadelphia University. He’s working hard to reinvent the school into a model for 21st century Professional education.

The Silo Career Track
One of the problems in business today is that college graduates trained in a single professional discipline (i.e. design, engineering or business) end up graduating as domain experts but with little experience working across multiple disciplines.

In the business world of the of the 20th century it was assumed that upon graduation students would get jobs and focus the first years of their professional careers working on specific tasks related to their college degree specialty. It wasn’t until the middle of their careers that they find themselves having to work across disciplines (engineers, working with designers and product managers and vice versa) to collaborate and manage multiple groups outside their trained expertise.

This type of education made sense in design, engineering and business professions when graduates could be assured that the businesses they were joining offered stable careers that gave them a decade to get cross discipline expertise.

20th Century Professional Education
Today, college graduates with a traditional 20th century College and University curriculum start with a broad foundation but very quickly narrow into a set of specific electives focused on a narrow domain expertise.

Interdisciplinary and collaborative courses are offered as electives but don’t really close the gaps between design, engineering and business.

Interdisciplinary Education in a Volatile, Complex, and Ambiguous World
The business world is now a different place. Graduating students today are entering a world with little certainty or security. Many will get jobs that did not exist when they started college. Many more will find their jobs obsolete or shipped overseas by the middle of their career.

This means that students need skills that allow them to be agile, resilient, and cross functional. They need to view their careers knowing that new fields may emerge and others might disappear. Today most college curriculum are simply unaligned with modern business needs.

Over a decade ago many research universities and colleges recognized this problem and embarked on interdisciplinary education to break down the traditional barriers between departments and specialties. (At Stanford, the D-School offers graduate students in engineering, medicine, business, humanities, and education an interdisciplinary way to learn design thinking and work together to solve big problems.) This isn’t as easy as it sounds as some of the traditional disciplines date back centuries (with tenure, hierarchy and tradition just as old.)

Philadelphia University Integrates Design, Engineering and Commerce
At dinner, I got to hear about how Philadelphia University was tackling this problem in undergraduate education. The University, with 2600 undergrads and 500 graduate students, started out in 1884 as the center of formal education for America’s textile workers and managers. The 21st century version of the school just announced its new Composite Institute for industrial applications.

(Full disclosure, Philadelphia University’s current president, Stephen Spinelli was one of my mentors in learning how to teach entrepreneurship. At Babson College he was chair of the entrepreneurship department and built the school into one of the most innovative entrepreneurial programs in the U.S.)

Philadelphia University’s new degree program, Design, Engineering and Commerce (DEC) will roll out this Fall. It starts with a core set of classes that all students take together; systems thinking, user-centric design, business models and team dynamics. These classes start the students thinking early about customers, value, consumer insights, and then move to systems thinking with an emphasis on financial, social, and political sustainability. They also get a healthy dose of liberal arts education and then move on to foundation classes in their specific discipline. But soon after that Philadelphia University’s students move into real world projects outside the university. The entire curriculum has heavy emphasis on experiential learning and interdisciplinary teams.

The intent of the DEC program is not just teaching students to collaborate, it also teaches them about agility and adaptation. While students graduate with skills that allow them to join a company already knowing how to coordinate with other functions, they carry with them the knowledge of how to adapt to new fields that emerge long after they graduate.

This type of curriculum integration is possible at Philadelphia because they have:
1) a diverse set of 18 majors, 2) three areas of focus; design, engineering, and business and 3) a manageable scale (~2,600 students.)

I think this school may be pioneering one of the new models of undergraduate professional education. One designed to educate students adept at multidisciplinary problem solving, innovation and agility.

College and business will never be the same.

Lessons Learned

  • Most colleges and Universities are still teaching in narrow silos
  • It’s hard to reconfigure academic programs
  • It’s necessary to reconfigure professional programs to match the workplace
  • Innovation needs to be applied to how we teach innovation

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21 Responses

  1. Love it! At NC State, creating multidisciplinary programs/certificates combining e’ship with other key functional areas from around the University has been quite easy and successful at the Graduate level. At the UG level, territorial politics reign and so we work behind the scenes to build collaborative arrangements between programs in order to combine b-school students with design, engineering, textiles, etc. It’s quite difficult, however, to do these things without institutional support. There is room for hope though in that the combination of budget challenges with the emergence of functional models like the one you highlight here suggests that these types of multi-disciplinary programs can emerge even at the large Research 1 Universities.

  2. This sounds like the program I wish had existed.

    I seems like the biggest challenge might be to get the first set of employers to understand what the degree means in terms of practical application. I can easily see a narrow minded employer simply not understanding how a broad base of knowledge is useful when they are currently focused on finding “an engineer” instead of a multidisciplinary workhorse.

    Or is part of the idea that from the real world projects, students also graduate with a healthy resume and recommendations?

  3. Well, I wish I could study there.
    I’m currently studying CS in Berlin, which is okay.
    Anyway I often miss that there is nothing about business, management and teams.

    Hopefully more universities change like that.

  4. It is great to see a University adjusting to give students a broader base coming out of school. One thing I wonder about is… I know that in startups generalists rule the roost, but is the same true in large companies? I have little experience outside of the startup world, but anecdotally deeply specialized domain experts still are in demand in very large companies.

  5. Drawing a horizontal chart to replace one of vertical silos helps visualize a new system, but raises some big red flags that need further explanation. How will students in the new horizontally integrated curricula find the time, assuming the time required to master a discipline is justification for the current silo approach in education?

    To what extent do new goals for imparting integrated proficiency sacrifice focused expertise?

  6. Steve — Notre Dame has a 12 month master’s program that builds on science, engineering and business to address this issue. It is relatively new but is doing extremely well.

  7. […] Steve Blank (Silicon Valley Entrepreneur) :College and Business will Never be the Same […]

  8. Inspiring stuff. Reminds me of Ideo’s Tim Brown definition of the T shaped person. This looks like how you might build an educational program to create T shaped people.

    Being in the business of Interactive and Marketing I could see a version of this that could be Design>Engineering>Communications or perhaps Design>Communications>Business

  9. Steve – a great post and the main proposal is music to my ears. However, I have a concern (raised by one of the others above). The “area” of a student’s learning at university is presumably fairly fixed (ie they have 4 years and only a certain number of hours of learning available). Changing the shape of that learning from “tall and narrow” to “something and wide” suggests that the something is “shorter than previously”.

    So what I’m getting at is that the depth of learning is going to be reduced. This shorter / fatter shape of learning will be appropriate for some but not all.

    I come from the UK and one of the issues we face is that previous governments have promoted “breadth” at the expense of “depth” of learning in our schools. The result is that we have children who think they know something about almost everything but don’t actually know much in any depth!

  10. I hate to break the news, but Industrial Technology and Technology Management Programs have filled the gap between engineering and business for the last 30 years. At the University level, these programs produce technically competent managerial professionals that support the economy as managers, engineers, entrepreneurs, and educators. Why haven’t you heard about these programs?–because engineering and business programs have been actively trying to kill them since their inception. The only reason they still exist is because companies love to hire these graduates. For a list of the programs, go to the Association of Technology, Management, and Applied Engineering website. (

  11. I would have agreed with this post if I had read it three or four years ago; however, I am currently in my last year of a mechatronic systems engineering (blended mechanical, electronic and control) undergraduate program, and can say with confidence that the type of thinking this post promotes is laudable in the long term, but severely hurts the student in the short term.
    I am uncertain as to the impact on students at such a prestigious university as Berkeley or Stanford, but coming from one of the more respected schools in Canada, students with ‘broad-based’ degrees have a hard time finding internships and entry level jobs for which the employers prefer to hire specialized new graduates. My fellow students and I have come to understand that our skill-set is only well suited to small businesses that require entry-level people to perform a variety of tasks which require wide-ranging understanding and knowledge; medium and large businesses seem to prefer hiring people to perform specialized tasks, then promoting them to make decisions for which they are ill-qualified. Businesses will deny that this last point is true, (and have routinely done so to myself and the faculty of my university), but if you closely examine their hiring procedures, you will see that they are geared to encourage this type of decision making.

  12. I teach at the HS level and would like to offer an Entrepreneurship class, what do you think all students should know and be able to do as it relates to this subject? Activities etc This seems to be a hot topic and I would like to make this work.

  13. I like the critique of academic silos and the argument that becoming versatile used to be a mid or late career thing but is now required in early career. the kinds of principles discussed in the blog can be applied to many fields, not just design and engineering. Letting some students design or engineer their own major has proven to work at some major universities including NYU, UC Berkeley, and UMass Amherst (from where I speak).

  14. Undergraduate “mashup” degrees make sense if you believe in the 4 year curriculum.

    But does it still make sense to dedicate 4 uninterrupted years to college?

    Seems to me that technology is beginning to make the 4 year, campus-based, prescribed curriculum education process less necessary.

    The trend toward employment of “just-in-time” talent will lead to “just-in-time” education.

  15. Hate it – as a graduating college senior I think the problem is too much integration. I’ve spent so much time in college on integrated studies and liberal education. When my parents went to college they graduated ready to become an accountant and a nurse. Now we graduate as jacks of all trades and masters of none. Steve Blank – I’m sorry to say I quite disagree.

  16. […] week Steve Blank wrote a post about changes in higher education and what some of these changes mean in a world that values multi-disciplinary […]

  17. […] enjoyed reading Steve Blank’s blog, and think the recent article “College and Business Will Never Be the Same” nicely articulates one of the reasons it’s so hard to bring different disciplines […]

  18. I’m looking for employment statistics of recent college grads that studied under entrepreneurial programs. Any recommendations?

  19. Unfortunately 1 swallow does not a summer make… 1 in over 4000 institutions won’t change things overnight…

    This is a great idea, but in today’s jobs market when there are 1000 applicants for every position, recruiters and HR departments are building automated systems to sort candidates based upon very deep and specific technical criteria.

    As a ‘T’ shaped reason I’m finding it so difficult to find employers who think this is a good way…. I hope these students do better 🙂

  20. […] 他最近的一篇文章解释了为什么很多大学的学科设置和教育体系跟不上当前业界正在和已经发生的变革。中国大学和美国大学的体制接近,文章中揭示的问题完全符合@NoTor几年前在国内念大学的经历。我把这篇文章的主要内容翻译出来,希望对大家能有所启发,以主动的方式思考和看待自己的职业发展,大学教育体制的进步不是总能跟上时代脚步的。 教育就是忘了在学校所学的一切之后剩下的东西。 […]

  21. […] College and Business Will Never be the Same – Steve Blank […]

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