by William Mercer
December 10, 2020
An interview with Pamela Yeow, lead of Central Saint Martins-Birkbeck's MBA focused on reshaping the business of fine art.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself, your academic background and what drew you towards leading an MBA program at a Fine Arts focused educational institution?

Thank you for your invite to speak to you and your team! My name is Pamela Yeow and I am the Course Leader of the Central Saint Martins-Birkbeck MBA which is a joint course between Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London, and Birkbeck, University of London. I have a PhD in Psychology from the Institute of Work Psychology, University of Sheffield and have been teaching and doing research in UK Higher Education Institutions for the last 17 years.

The prospect of leading the first (in the world) MBA programme that is jointly delivered by a leading arts and design school and an established business school was such an audacious one, I could not resist applying for the job. What excited me was the possibility of creating a legacy where future leaders of businesses and organisations of all types in all industries are exposed to the learnings from a myriad of disciplines, something that is not practiced widely in other MBAs. In setting up this MBA, we very much adopt the teaching pedagogies of the art/design curriculum, for example, understanding the user when creating solutions to complex problems. We adopt a flipped classroom problem-based approach when trying to come up with solutions that would work well for both the decision—makers and the wider community of users.

As the leader of the MBA program at CSM, what tools do you seek to provide to students in such a program?

Students come onto the MBA programme because they understand the value and importance of changing the way ‘we do business’. That is at both the macro and micro levels. On a macro level, we look at how business strategies can benefit from a design approach and transform to one that is more ethical, collaborative and representative of the diverse society we live in. On a micro level, we teach and reflect on our leadership qualities and practices so that graduates develop inclusive leadership practices that they can bring to their work. Central to our approach is about placing social enterprise at the heart of future leadership and we encourage all our students to take on career routes that speak to their passions and values.  Students work on 3 long-term complex (or wicked!) projects which require a holistic approach to understand the issues before they come up with creative and workable solutions. They also have the opportunity to work on their own project in the final unit, where they bring to the fore their passion project that may go some way toward changing the world in a positive manner.

Canton Tower
What kind of projects are your graduate students currently working on?

Our students work on a myriad of different projects. We have had projects evaluating the potential of establishing a green trainer, theses proposing and testing alternative business models that place emphasis on system values rather than on shareholder values; students critically evaluating the role of innovation and creativity in organisational growth and development; and projects understanding how investors can influence corporate responsibility in business decision-making. At a glance, these topics may sound like they definitely belong in a business school setting. I would argue that it is entirely because they have the added vantage of benefiting from the arts and design school approach that allows them to explore and experiment how different values and models can and should be applied in current economies and value systems, so that sustainable alternatives can be proposed and implemented. Importantly, the point needs to be made that the creative industries as a whole have contributed as much as ‘big businesses’, and significantly, during the many lockdowns across the world in 2020, outputs from the creative industries (be they film, books, theatre, museums, dance, music and art) have served as sources of comfort for the vast majority. In the latest figures from the Arts Council England (2019), one of the statistics that stand out are that the arts and culture industry has grown £390million in a year and now contributes £10.8billion a year to the UK economy.

Stefan Al
In your statement on “Why study business at an art school?”, you mentioned that: “Design thinking is second nature at Central Saint Martins but unheard of in business. Prototyping, iterations and collaboration all have so much to offer. We all like to think we’re flexible but inherently we often need to break out of the mould, that traditional way of thinking.” What aspects of design do you think should be further implemented in the corporate world?

‘Good design is Good business’ as a slogan was made famous by TJ Watson, the President of IBM in 1973. Fast forward to the 21st Century and the conversations, at least in forward thinking business corporations, are that design and designers are incorporated and embedded within their business units and significantly, in their c-suites. Many top organisations have senior positions like ‘chief design officer’ who sit alongside other chiefs of finance, technology and operations. Perhaps the discussion needs to move forward to ‘what is good design’ and how these designs can help bring about empathetic and effective solutions for society.

In our complex projects, where we’ve worked with homeless shelter charities, national ambulance services and non-governmental organisations interested in reducing food poverty, we have always been clear that the aim of the projects are for our students to have a clear understanding of the complexity of each situation. For example, the solution is not just about providing more buildings to house homeless people, or feeding the population a calorie-full diet; it is about understanding the complex circumstances that have resulted in the current state, and to bring about a solution for whom that value is meant to benefit.

In other projects, where students were invited to reimagine the future of the high street for example (way before the high street was desolate due to the global pandemic), they understood that the solution was not just about utilising more AI to make better delivery slots for Amazon and the ilk. Instead, students were clear that the high street was important beyond the role of shops and services; the high street was important in bringing communities together.

What message do you have to share with students who seek to do an MBA but are uncertain of pursuing it in an art focused environment as a result of the stigma that is sometimes associated with the arts in the business world?

Our MBA has just admitted our fourth cohort and dare I say, this has been the most diverse group yet. Not just in terms of geography and industry, but also in terms of backgrounds, interests and aspirations. And I am very excited. Many of them are from what you would call an ‘art-focused environment’ and many of them would say that they are on the MBA so that they can bring the learnings and teachings back to their sector so as to re-imagine a more sustained future. I do not think reinforcing the silos of ‘us v them’ is healthy. We all have much to learn from each other, and many industries are so interdisciplinary now that it would be difficult to pigeon-hole individuals into narrow specialisms. There is much about beautiful design in modern automobiles as there is hard-core business in marketing a luxury handbag. I would say that our MBA is forward thinking in a way that makes it entirely relevant for the increasing desire toward creating sustainable businesses for the planet and her people.  

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