Colombia, South Carolina — home to the campus of the Darla Moore School of Business — is about as far east as you can get on the mainland of the US from the technology start-up capital of San Francisco.

However, Peter Brews, Darla Moore’s dean, appears as concerned about the importance of data to the future of his institution as any Silicon Valley business.

“We must be data driven,” he says, noting that these are the skills that companies increasingly need to remain competitive in an era when information can give everyone from manufacturers to service companies an edge.

Experiential learning, the technique many West Coast founders use to build their leadership skills, is something Professor Brews has been trying to ingrain into teaching at Darla Moore by setting students to work with real companies on their business challenges.

The advantage of this “advanced experiential learning” technique, using real company data as a teaching tool, is that it forces students to learn by doing rather than studying case studies, Prof Brews notes.

It also helps build relationships with industry: “Our supply chain group at the business school is probably the best in the country for optimising data and in the process exposing them to the students,” Prof Brews boasts.

Experiential teaching also enables Darla Moore to better utilise its teaching resources among its 5,000 undergraduate and 800 graduate students given that they would be far more limited if such projects had to be created as theoretical exercises by faculty staff.

Prof Brews, who was born and raised in South Africa, has worked in business schools for over a quarter of a century. He was a professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina and associate dean of its OneMBA programme before moving one state south to his current role at Darla Moore in January 2014.

His concern about data analysis appears to be as much about teaching relevant skills to the current generation of MBA students as guaranteeing a future for schools like his, which was 96th in this year’s top 100 in the Financial Times Global MBA ranking.

“We have got to remain ahead and do stuff that nobody else has done,” he says.

He has made it his goal at Darla Moore to create a programme that will produce more worldly, mindful and humble MBA graduates, who can adapt to different cultures. It is something he claims is critical for the future of the MBA and for the future success of MBA graduates on the world stage and in emerging markets.

The school employed Ken Erickson, a cultural anthropologist and ethnographer, to help redesign its international MBA programme. As a result all students must now spend between four and 12 months in a country other than the US, learning the language and immersing themselves in the local business and social culture.

Students on this programme must then undertake a six-month company project in that country or a country that speaks the same language.

“You need a foundation in the analytical,” Prof Brews says. “In order to do that you have to understand the factory.

“The fundamentals [of a business education] are still required but it is no longer enough to say I have learned the theory and proven it in an exam.”

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