"Creative" is a much-abused word. It is all too often applied to things which really are just a little different or simply doing their job. But creativity plainly exists – there would be no art, literature or music if it did not – and understanding what it is and how it works will be increasingly valuable to businesses in an ever more competitive world.

Audencia Nantes, the French business school, has bravely tried to introduce the artistic notion of creativity to the more mundane idea of management in the hope that a marriage will result. An elective module on the school's MBA curriculum, called art, management and creativity, is about to enter its second year. It is the brainchild of Catherine Morel, an expert on the business of art, who used to be a full-time member of Audencia's faculty. She is now the director of the MA in creative economy at Kingston University and also teaches the course in Nantes. Her belief is that artists solve problems just as businesses do, but in different ways, and that each can learn from the other.

"I want to challenge the idea of creativity," she says. "What about creativity in management? How about bringing art into management? Can you bring management into creativity?"

Audencia is effectively trying to enlarge and enrich how managers think. "The basic idea is that there's a lack of creativity in organisations, says Professor Valérie Claude-Gaudillat, the director of the school's MBA programme. "There's a kind of replication in the way companies think. Most copy each other."

During the 30-hour module, students visit galleries, meet artists and managers of art organisations, and collaborate as a group on a project. One case study looks at how the animation company Pixar manages the creativity of teams. Most of the seven students who took the module when it was new last year had never darkened the door of a gallery before, let alone swapped ideas with artists. "They must have thought: 'Where is this leading us?'," says Morel.

One direction was to understand that artists and art managers have to meet problems for which they are unprepared. This is an MBA staple, but the module is designed to open conventionally trained managers' eyes to the different ways in which artists overcome difficulties in their work. It points to the less structured and homogeneous working methods of artists, a sharp contrast to the process-and-system approach of many formal organisations. "Artists are quite obsessive. They'll try many different things to find an answer," says Morel.

Her ambition is to help produce managers whose skills are much more inter-disciplinary and who understand how to harness creativity in a broad sense, not just the limited way in which it is normally understood in business. Such individuals would be a bridge between the worlds of art and business. Airy-fairy as it might sound, the ultimate target is one beloved of business and business schools – the bottom line.

"Companies which perform better often do so because they have new ideas," says Claude-Gaudillat, adding that innovation is increasingly important in Europe and North America, where many markets are mature and growing only slowly, if at all.

But higher profitability does not come just from superior products and services. It also comes from how organisations work internally. Another aim of Audencia's course is to suggest different ways in which people can work more effectively together. "It's very important for managers to break routines, to devise new ways of working, perhaps by working more collaboratively," says Claude-Gaudillat. "I'm convinced it's essential to look beyond how companies work."

Following good feedback from the first group, the number of students taking the course this year has doubled. While Audencia's course is highly unusual, other schools are developing similar ideas.

Design, a crucial aspect of creativity for many companies, features quite widely on business school curricula. Some modules also try to address creativity more generally. Ken Starkey is Professor of Management and Organisational Learning at Nottingham University Business School. His title sounds conventional, but his ideas are not. As part of the MBA advanced strategy module, Starkey's students work with the local theatre to try to understand creativity in a more rounded way.

"It fits in with the general debate about the MBA curriculum and whether the hard-nosed model is definitive, which I think is highly unlikely in light of the financial crisis," says Starkey.

He believes that new industries will throw up new ways of working, and is interested in developing a more sustainable organisational model. He conjures up two unexpected figures: Miles Davis, the jazz musician, and Peter Brook, the theatre director.

The point, he argues, is that both worked collaboratively. "The starting point is not that you know how to do it, but how do you frame the future, for example in jazz improvisation? The model of a leader is different. Directing is not top-down command and control. It's about co-production."

But he acknowledges that the idea is not new. Many years ago, the American management guru Peter Drucker described an orchestra as the classic organisation. It seems that the struggle to redefine creativity in business has deep roots.

'An artist can't be successful without a business approach'

Abas Abassi was one of the first students to try the art, management and creativity module on the Audencia MBA. The 39-year-old French engineer was intrigued to see it on the programme, not least because he had never been inside an art gallery. "I was curious to take this module," he says.

The first part of the module was on art as a business, which he found an eye-opener. "To be successful in art, you need all the things you need in business. An artist can't be successful today without using a business approach. The tools of the artist were very interesting to me, because you can use art to stimulate people to work together.

"Meeting artists is a different experience. It's a sharing between two worlds. It made me aware of how I might think differently. Having done this module, I will be more open to art – I will see what's behind it."