below is a copy of the open letter that i sent to thunderbird’s leadership today.

while it is thunderbird-specific, it points to a number of changes and disruptions that have and will take place in education…

for my fellow t-birds, what are your thoughts?

more generally, where do you all see education going? what can / should be done to evolve education at all levels?


A New Path for Thunderbird
An Open Letter to Thunderbird’s Trustees and Newly Appointed Leadership

With its founding in 1946, Thunderbird set a new tone, a new direction for business schools around the world.  Beginning with the premise that borders frequented by trade rarely need soldiers, Thunderbird’s global focus changed how business schools were taught.

While Thunderbird is still ranked highly, if not #1, by renowned publications in recognition for its international curriculum - the fact of the matter is that global is no longer a differentiator.  From elite management programs to state universities, global - to use a “b-school” term - has become commoditized.

Every school is teaching global, and integrating cross-border, cross-cultural aspects into their classes.  The question for Thunderbird, therefore, is where does it go next.  Does it simply compete head-on in what is becoming a traditional MBA curriculum? Does it double down and take global to an entirely new, experiential level? Does it rethink and innovate how classes are taught?

After discussing this topic with friends, colleagues, mentors, and advisors from various MBA programs (including MIT, Harvard, UCLA, and Northwestern), as well as some fellow T-Birds, I’d suggest an aggressive blend.

First and foremost for Thunderbird is evolving what a global MBA program means.  This necessitates more than simply discussing world issues or reading international cases.  Granted Thunderbird does a fantastic job with language training and in-country programs, but the learning has to be much less theoretical.  Any school can do that.  

Thunderbird can define this, with concrete, practical, operational expertise in international markets.  Thunderbird students should have more than international understanding, with the ability to execute globally at an elite level.

Second, is rethinking not only how, but also why business school classes are taught.  Every business school, from the best to the worst, teaches an unimagined ‘core’ curriculum, seemingly without consideration of to whom or why the subject matter is being taught.  The goal, after all, is training future global leaders and executives.

With any information literally seconds away, why is memorization still a part of an MBA?  As Seth Godin says in his Ted Talk on Education, “There is zero value in memorizing anything ever again.”  With such new thinking, Thunderbird can set once again lead a new paradigm shift in higher education.

I would argue, therefore, that accounting classes should only have essay exams. Managers need to be able to reason, strategize, and direct accounting philosophies.  Far more important to be able to write a letter to one’s board about a change in accounting methodology than calculate some obscure balance sheet item.

Conversely, marketing courses should have heavy Excel application, with pivot tables, cohort analysis, and statistics a core part of every class.  Of course, it goes without saying that social and digital marketing strategies should be front and center, and not merely taught at the 80,000 foot level.  It’s a given that companies “want engagement” and similar corporate platitudes.  Let’s dig in with tactics on how to make this happen.

Entrepreneurial classes cannot stay trapped in an old-fashioned, Arizona reality.  Lean startup principles with an application of how to test ideas and start businesses all over the world needs to be where the Walker Center - to use a startup term - pivots.  With the advancement of the web and the opening of markets around the world, Thunderbird can be the definitive destination for learning how to build, structure, and execute international entrepreneurial endeavors.

Finance is another area where even when the content is where it should be, its application is not.  Understanding global finance without the ability to build actionable models is wasted knowledge.  And similar to accounting as discussed above, are the goals of these classes in step with actual teaching and application?  Thunderbird can go farther in matching course objectives with content.

Business intelligence classes can also adapt from cold-war tactics to the new ways that people can gather intelligence, such as where a CEO or key executive is checking in on Foursquare or who they follow on Twitter, what job positions your competitors are posting on LinkedIn, or what search terms a competitor is buying on Google or Baidu.  More than ever, companies are giving up vast amounts of information.  Thunderbird can lead a new directive in global business intelligence.

In order to make make all of the above possible, it will take a concerted effort from the administration to lead, the faculty to inspire, and the students to embrace the challenge.  

Now is the time to take bold actions in how to structure a new global curriculum.  

Now is the time for Thunderbird’s professors to challenge themselves to produce dynamic, tactical course materials — knowing that such materials will need to be rethought and redone by the next trimester.  

Now is the time for Thunderbird students to want the challenge of a rigorous global curriculum.  This is, after all, the only that way T-birds will go on to not only demand, but also later create elite global manager positions around the world.  It’s not about a pretty resume, which is increasingly meaningless, but demonstrated knowledge with the ability to think, network, and influence.

Never before has education been at more of a crossroads.  Knowledge is both at a premium as far as demand, but also literally free in terms of supply.  

For zero cost, people can take Ivy-league courses - such as gamification from Wharton, model theory from the University of Michigan, or creative mobile app design from the University of London - on Coursera.  Udacity has similarly amazing courses, such as the renowned Steve Blank’s Lean Startup class (taught traditionally at Stanford) — for free.  For more tactical application and for a few dollars, one can take a Skillshare class on cohort analyst from an expert executive currently practicing marketing.  

These new marketplaces for knowledge are fundamentally changing the risk/return of education, which is why innovative teaching practices are needed by Thunderbird.  Competition has evolved beyond other traditional business schools to include a new breed of education that offers actionable, ROI expertise for free or not much more.

I write this open letter to Thunderbird and its community as a hopeful alumnus, for I received everything I hoped for and more during my time there.  With the changes not only at Thunderbird, but also across the broader education landscape, I hope that Thunderbird will be the disruptor and not the disruptee in this new paradigm.

Thunderbird can do this, and with its unique global alumni base, has the support of a global community to execute this endeavor forthwith.


Jonathan Hegranes, CFA
T-Bird Class of ‘11

Authorjonathan hegranes