Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Comments on a prestigious University expanding its degree programs in a unique and admirable way (name of the School is removed). Agencies like Edelman, Ketchum, Fleishman Hillard, may find the new degrees of interest to their HR plans.

"Other schools would benefit from this school's approach to educational planning. Their response to the strategic and applied communication education market is a credit to their insight into the demand for professional education over the past 5 years. Their initial response to create a strategic program for more experienced professionals seeking to advance in their field or develop new business communications knowledge for corporate, agency, government or not-for-profit organizations was timely as the field was growing at 9 percent per year. The School has established a recognized position in an enviable leading communication industry and professional market. They allowed the program to mature, attract students, build a reputation and attract senior clinical faculty.

As the market changed; they did not simply rest or exploit the new demand that would change the character of their strategic program. Unlike others have done in similar programs, they reanalyzed the market and with determination and decided to offer a new, advanced degree program that met the needs of the market of younger and more international students. Rather than simply muddle the program they had created for a more experienced and older market (similar to what was done in superior MBA programs) they recognized and redefined their educational mission to serve the newer applicant pool.

The extraordinary demand for an American university education from students in China and other countries in Asia was seen by the faculty and administration as a new market rather than simply more applicants to fill a program that was not suited to the Asian applicants. (I spend 20 days and more in China each year with several faculty courtesy appointments). The team also saw the demand of younger, more recent college graduates as different from the interest of the pool of applicants served by the established master’s degree. Instead of watering down their existing degree with students who can benefit from and earn a graduate degree, they realized that the knowledge and skills that needed to be “mastered” were different from the knowledge and skills of the strategic degree.

While the distinct cultural experience of international students is often of great value to a class of sometimes parochial Americans, the barriers to learning in the field of communications are often tied to the namesake of the field. As with any other professional field, the skills and knowledge needed to succeed early in a communications career are demanding and core to the grasp of the professional practice and concept building. An approach we utilize at Northwestern is to identify theories or concepts that are more universal and examples of best thinking by business and other organizational leaders. The concepts, while very helpful to articulating why a specific action may be taken, are not sufficient. In a professional field as far ranging and dependent on so many social science bodies of knowledge, statistics and mathematics; a comprehensive degree at the masters level much match concept with tactics.

For the professional students without work experience or a portfolio of written and creative work, their degree work must direct them to accomplish the concepts and practices of the field. For students with a newer acquired command of business English and less experience in the Western business environment; their education and training must emphasize a few powerful theories and even more tactical skills to demonstrate their grasp of the advanced fundamentals of the field. It would be my belief that the new generation of students would receive an education that would emphasize more application of tools and tactics but still make sure they are grounded in very carefully selected theories or concept. The ratio for the applied degree might be 30% theories and concepts matched with 60% tactics and tools directly related to the concepts taught. While all tools and tactics should be based on a concept to explain why the tactic is being used, not all theories have incumbent tactics. The other advanced degree with different objectives for a different set of masters candidates may be 70% theories and concepts (sometimes called strategies in business) and 30% knowledge and application of skills (tools and concepts).

This model gives me a strong reason to agree that two master’s degrees with different objectives can co-exist in the same school exploring the same widely defined topic – communications. The School is taking a stronger approach to the education of the next generation of business leaders who will use communications as a strategic and tactical advantage in the marketplace of ideas, products and services.

Rather than entering the market at a “lower” level (as some might interpret their actions), the educational plan, courses and faculty illustrate the intellectual and practical benefit of distinguishing between the two slightly parallel degrees and timely degrees. The degree opens the world of conceptual and applied communications to a wider range of holders of a wide range of bachelor’s degrees. The degree is a superior model in which many students can begin their careers in an increasing specialized world with advanced work.

In summary, the school’s identification and definition of a professional degree for less experienced candidates with the desire to “master” a subject is an appropriate degree at an applied level in a strong university environment. I fully expect that selected topics of the strategic communications degree will “trickle down” as new knowledge is created and tested in that degree. I expect that a number of joint opportunities will be conceived of notable guest speakers from industry and academe, possible mentoring by the older master’s students on complex projects but also tutoring by the younger students on some of the quantitative work and tactics that they share. Some form of joint field trips to advanced agencies or practices of the strategic students might be bonding. I hope that the Applied students would be considered by the strategic students who are working for their firms. Their common and overlapping education would be a great recommendation for employment and the joint interest into the Columbia model would be a productive value to share. A single joint team project at the end of their coursework might be conceived to have them work as a comprehensive team of strategists and applied experts.

The strongest possible effort must be documented and practiced to give both sets of students equal respect and equal rewards to meet their goals. The culture of the School should reflect the efforts of the faculty and administration to demonstrate that the degrees are both master’s of communications. The distinction should be goal driven and important to the students as they master elements of knowledge and skills of a wide and deep discipline.

The educational nostrum that education should prepare students for their third job or for a job that has not been created sometimes belies the value of the widely ranging baccalaureate degrees of the candidates, the rich nature of the media covering topics that might have only been found in advanced curriculum, and the life-time learning goals of students. School faculty and administrators have carefully defined a professional communications degree in two categories which should lead and define the field among their competitors but mostly to the advantage of their students. While other schools, including Northwestern, force the faculty to select from only one degree in strategic and applied business communications (Integrated Marketing Communications in the Medill School); this school can logically attract a wider range of students. The Medill IMC program was judged in the competitive analysis as a "marketing program" not a "communication" program despite the title Integrated Marketing Communications.

Finally, the idea of a dual track master’s programs in strategic and applied communications seems to be a superior model to attract a wider range of holders of the baccalaureate degree in a wider range of topics rather than those with “pre-professional” degrees. I have confidence in the faculty to carefully and continuously monitor the distance between the two degrees, the standards for admission, planned overlaps, and joint learning opportunities. This monitoring of an original new degree mix will be served by experience, testing, occasional failures and frequent faculty reviews to create true distinction between the degrees but a long term goal of finding important similarities and even dual master’s earned by very selected students over time."

No comments: