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May 8, 2012

Now if we could just get HR in there…

Why are we still surprised by the need to eliminate silos?

By Dave Crisp

Thankfully, I get to write the headlines to my blog posts and editors rarely tinker.

Not so for Melissa Quinn in a recent Fast Company Design article that was highlighted in a newsletter with the headline: “Need to solve a tough business problem? Don’t hire an MBA.”

Within one week, the site was swimming in comments, including from a few who obviously read no further than the headline — which often seems to happen.

The article is a fast read about the third annual Design Challenge competition, held by the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management. It focused on the fact that, once again, it wasn't won by Rotman’s team nor even by an MBA team from any other school. The top three spots were all from masters' programs in design, that represented only seven of the 23 schools entered. Quinn calls it a "slaughter," which I suppose gives the headline writer the idea for that headline.

The gist of the headline, which most commenters picked up, was that neither pure business nor pure design solutions really work well in solving business problems. This was Steve Jobs’ true success. He was primarily oriented to business and making money, but he was intensely focused on ensuring the product's design appealed, both in looks and operation, to the end user.

What a radical idea — trying to achieve two ends at once, with the appeal to the customer taking precedence if one wants to actually induce them to fork over their hard earned cash.

Some thoughtful commenters had participated in the competition and pointed out a number of the design students were MBAs taking design because they’d recognized its importance (thanks Steve). Others noted the competition was designed by an MBA school so its students would take seriously and learn more about the need for design, not just number crunching (ditto Steve). No one pointed out the master of this combination did not even finish university, let alone do post-graduate work, perhaps one reason his thinking wasn’t confined to siloed boxes.

To their credit, most of the commenters recognized this as the problem. And everyone recognized this is about solving key business problems, not just a design or MBA problem.

Of course, you know where I’m going with this.

Maybe Rotman or some other business school should set up an annual HR challenge. Why stop at design and business? Why not add positive, business-supporting HR methods to the mix and ensure a long-term creative base is developed and retained in the organization?

Is there any better indication business still operates in silos than competitions where it's a startling discovery that "both business and design count?"

How about all the pieces — business, design and human resources… and, oh yes, a few others as well. It is the HR part that sets people up to handle complexity and creative innovation, though, which makes its omission particularly glaring.

Would we then see post-graduate HR program registrants beating MBAs and design grads on business challenges, too? Would they be won by teams of MBAs who recognized they needed HR training and were taking it?

I think we still have a ways to go, but we can see no one has yet so visibly proved the value of HR to business in quite the way Steve Jobs proved the value of design, even as Dan Pink was beginning to write about the primacy of design in our future. To date we’ve had Jack Welch and any number of major professors write this way about HR, not to mention a number of other CEOs, some of whom will be highlighted in future posts… but it may not take root until a "Steve Jobs of HR" comes along and wows the numbers people.

Welch’s results, apparently, are not quite riveting enough… what more will it take?

Dave Crisp is a Toronto-based writer and thought leader for Strategic Capability Network with a wealth of experience, including 14 years leading HR at Hudson Bay Co. where he took the 70,000-employee retailer to “best company to work for” status. For more information, visit
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Tough business problems require both MBA and design graduates
Thursday, May 10, 2012 9:30:00 AM by Mr. Bean
Having an understanding of design is essential, however an individual in design could not go beyond the initial stages of the business problem. Drawing sketches and visualizations to inspire business leaders is nice, but an MBA takes thinking to a much deeper level that design majors would not understand. I think the headline does create a lot of controversy because it is phrased incorrectly. The issue as you noted isn't to not hire MBA grads, but to ensure collaborate with design majors as well.