Oct. 30, 3007
By Mary Reed
When Gary Coombs joined forces with colleagues more than a decade ago to form a new problem-based curriculum in the College of Business, they knew they were taking a risk. "It was purely an experiment. The four of us jumped in," says the associate professor of management. Today, it's clear the risk has paid off.
Since the Cluster Program became a requirement for all College of Business students 10 years ago, some 4,000 graduates have taken the skills they sharpened to careers, many with Fortune 500 companies. In the same time period, the college has gone from being unranked to 62nd in BusinessWeek's 2007 rankings for the best undergraduate business schools. The magazine specifically pointed to the quality of the Cluster Program.
"It's a problem-based, team-taught, integrated business experience -- with all the messiness that goes with that," Coombs says of the program. The Cluster Program was one of the first in the country -- if not the first -- to bring problem-based learning to undergraduate business education. "We were leading the way," Coombs says.
Rather than teach core subjects as discrete units, the College of Business combines four independent classes into a cluster -- one integrated class taught by four professors who model the teamwork they expect to see in their students. The 200-level cluster combines management, marketing, management information systems and professional communication components.
Students form small teams to solve at least three authentic business problems during the quarter, often with live clients. It is generally the most intensive academic experience undergraduate business students will have.
"We only half jokingly tell them at the beginning of the quarter to say goodbye to friends and family," Coombs says.
Junior management information systems and marketing major Lindsey Sheperd knows how demanding the cluster is -- she's in the midst of it this quarter. But she also knows this is an opportunity not every business student gets.
"Not every school does it. I'm really glad OU does. It gives you a chance to work with a lot of people, including the client," she says. And while the quarter is very demanding, Sheperd's group has kept its workload under control. "No all-nighters yet. We manage our time pretty well. That's what it teaches you."
Alumnus Greg Kaple, founder and senior partner with Integrated Management Systems on Wall Street, can attest to the program's value.
"It's the best type of structured, yet unstructured learning atmosphere you can have," says Kaple, a 1998 graduate. "It exposes you early to the imperfect world of business, forcing you to work with group members who are less than motivated or productive, just like a real job. It puts you into a role-play situation that is much like real business: 'Here's a problem, now go solve it.'"
Cluster students have solved real problems for dozens of real clients over the years, including the Chagrin Valley Little Theatre in Chagrin Falls, Ohio; the Blennerhassett Hotel in Parkersburg, W.Va.; Stuart's Opera House in Nelsonville, Ohio; and Ohio University itself.
Keith Wasserman has been a repeat client. He is founder and executive director of Good Works, a faith-based organization in Athens that helps people in the region who struggle with poverty.
"I feel like from the beginning it's been a gift to be able to be participating in this educational journey with these students," says Wasserman, who has had cluster students generate a marketing plan, a feasibility study on a new business concept and ideas for a for-profit business that will earn income for the nonprofit Good Works.
"They had a top-notch level of professionalism," Wasserman says. "They were instrumental in my view in moving me along in my thinking. I'm looking now for innovative, creative models that are different than the traditional programs."
Students take this experience of innovative thinking in a team format to the workplace after graduation.
"The most valuable skill I learned from the cluster was teambuilding," says 2003 alumnus Tom Weidaw, now a senior associate in advisory services at PricewaterhouseCoopers in Chicago. "It is without a doubt a difficult quarter, but students will eventually be glad they had that experience."
Evaluations of the program bear out this assertion. Associate Professor of Strategic Management and Cluster Coordinator Will Lamb sends evaluations to students just a month or two out of the program and also to alumni who have been out of college for five years. "On a scale of one to five, scores are routinely in the four to five range," he says. "It's been a very successful experiment."