Business Management Education—Think Again

In an HBR Blog Network article Gianpiero Petriglieri, Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior and Director of the Management Acceleration Programme at INSEAD, spoke to the question are business schools clueless or evil?  Professor Petriglieri’s answer is “business schools are neither clueless nor evil. They are—like most students that flock to their classrooms—in transition.  Overtly working to improve their competence and image and covertly wrestling with questions about identity and purpose.”

Cosmetic Makeover

In the vast majority of business schools the MBA curriculum is fundamentally no different than the line up of courses found in the undergraduate curriculum.  Like any respectable reductionist would have it the core of the curriculum is based on the sum of the separate departments and disciplines of Finance, Marketing, Accounting, Management and Economics.

The way we educate management hasn’t fundamentally changed since business schools were first created.  There may be courses here and there that have been inserted or appended to a school’s curriculum but the principles of management that are taught have not changed much.  Yes there may be a variety of pedagogical strategies—group work, casework, experiential exercises, or global experiences for example—but the subjects of focus as separate functions of business haven’t changed since the beginning of time, or so it seems.  No wonder we see organizations similarly organized and managed—not a hint of systems and statistical thinking! Talk about being attached to the past!

How can schools possibly foster creativity and teach how to be innovative when they themselves are the antithesis of creativity and innovation? Those in authority of business schools aren’t clueless or evil it is more likely they are just risk-averse and quite attached to what they know.

Good Idea But

Do we really need a different way of thinking about how to prepare management of business?  Henry Mintzberg believes so.  He contends that you can’t (and shouldn’t) teach management to those who have no experience in management practice. Mintzberg advances the idea that the managing is learned best through experiencing it in practice.  As he stated that once you are tapped for a managerial position “that is when your management education will begin.  Prepare then to learn about management. Live it. Experience it.” And “by then you’ll be ready for some formal management education.”

So it is not that ideas for a different curriculum haven’t been offered.  For example the IMPM program (in which Mintzberg was a collaborator) offers an alternative to the Executive MBA—it is for experienced managers whose company will pay the price (approximately $60K not including travel and personal expenses which exceed $20K).

It is wonderful that the IMPM’s curriculum is a break from the traditional subject-focused curriculum. It offers a curriculum that rests upon five managing practices—with particular emphasis on cross-cultural global environment—involving reflective, analytic, worldly, collaborative, and action mindsets.  Moreover the program relies on the extensive experience of its business-minded students (average age 45) “to shape the content of learning around their own agendas.”  Accordingly the program gives a unique experience to those privileged enough to afford it.

Under this model we have managers initially practicing management without a sound theory of management as their guide until they are fortunate enough to gain recognition and a high enough management level in their company.  As Deming asserted, in the absence of theory experience teaches us nothing!   And so our problems will continue.

What Is Believed Traps Us

The problem that most of us experience in organizations stems from being traditionally managed.  That is, managed by someone who acts consistent with the ill-conceived narrow-minded belief that the business of business is profit.

According to this belief system, it is not that business is without value it is that value is solely instrumentally or materially defined.  Therefore, within this belief system, we are to relate to everyone as if he/she has no inherent value in light of the overall purpose—everyone is commodified and of little significance relative to the business of maximizing profit.

One of many manifestation of this belief is the all too frequent and unapologetic management decision to transfer the company’s manufacturing, production and/or services to lower wage labor countries.  Why the transfer?  It improves the bottom line and shareholder value, of course!

It also leaves a large number of society’s citizens struggling to make a living—but within this system of belief this is of no concern to the corporation and its management.  Perhaps corporate profit maximization isn’t as centrally important to society as we are led to believe!  When the business of business is profit and not quality a lot of people suffer.  Clearly the focus of concern must be wider and deeper than the legal entity we call the corporation—the unit of survival cannot be limited to the corporate entity.

Where did this widely held belief in the primacy of profit come from?  It either was learned in business school or from reading business-minded publications or tacitly learned from following those in management (who likely had attended business school or read business-minded publications).

The problem is not so much that we haven’t a global view—as the current fad of additions to business curriculums reflect—but that the view we have is quite individualistic, materialistic and mechanistic.  Unfortunately this critical issue is never acknowledged, so we continue with cosmetic changes to the curriculum thus denying the need for foundational or fundamental change.

But wait fear not, competition will bring forth innovative ideas; it brings out the best in us, does it not?  Even though business school competition is highly intense, competition hasn’t lead to innovation.  That competition does so is a widely held fallacy and just another misguided belief advanced in the traditional business curriculum.

However what it does lead to is imitation.  Those below the top seek to be more like those at the top—after all they are at the top so they must be doing what is right—so those below copy.  Furthermore, those at the top tend to believe what they are doing is right; otherwise they wouldn’t be so successful and others wouldn’t be imitating them, now would they!  After all, imitation is the best form of flattery.

Why should those at the top take a chance and risk losing their position in the market!  Hence no fundamental changes—no innovation.  Market leaders rarely advance theory and practice, yet followers do continue following.

The Prospect of Extinction Moves Us

However as Rita McGrath pointed out there is “diminishing returns on the investment in an MBA degree” which portends a decreasing demand for the degree itself.  Rita asserts that  “business schools without some strong form of differentiation or demonstrable value-added will find it increasingly difficult to stay in the business.  Perhaps then a need for something other than or different than the traditional MBA will command a new demand.

The good news is that when faced with the prospects of extinction the risk of doing something different—of trying creative ideas to advance theory and practice—becomes much smaller relative to the risk of extinction.  The bad news is it may be too late.

Denying or ignoring the need for change just ensures one will have to deal with the change in its extreme. Unfortunately times of crisis do not present the most favorable conditions for success with change.  Thus those who should have changed in the past, but didn’t have the courage to do so, most often fail with change when in crisis—unless of course they are propped up by outside forces (e.g. GM who had been afraid to innovate had to be propped up by the U.S. government to remain in existence).  To paraphrase a familiar saying, nothing concentrates the mind better than knowing you will hang in the morning!

Higher Learning Frees Us to See Anew

So today business schools need to engage in this thinking well before the forces of destruction are at the gate and evident to most.  Substantive change is needed, not mere appendages to the traditional curriculum.

As Deming asserted in his book The new economics: For industry, government and education, “people blame their plight on the government and its leaders or to management and its leaders.  They may be correct. But will change in leadership assure better living? What if the new leaders are no better?  How could they be?”  Underlying Deming’s questions are the notions that there can be no substitute for knowledge and without a theory even a new experience will not teach us anything.

New methods or techniques for teaching management (or leadership if you wish to call it) will not bring us quality organizations or quality managers/leaders for that matter—a better job of teaching the wrong thing can’t really help.  What we do need is knowledge (a different understanding) that can reveal a better way of thinking about business and management—better for all of us not just a few of us—that in turn can inform an innovative curriculum.

We need people who not only can but also want to collaborate.  We need people adept at the disciplines of business but we need them to understand them as a system.  And in this system we need people to know how to understand people, individually and collectively.  We need people to be systems thinkers and to see the world around as a deeply interconnected living system.  We also need people who understand that variation is inherent in all that manifests and so accordingly we need people who can think statisticallyno more misuse and abuse of data.  Reacting to the most recent, the highest or the lowest can only make things worse—we don’t need to intensify our obsession with raising standards, results and accountability!  That is, we count and measure far too much and understand far too little!

In short, we need a transmutation of education, especially of business education.  In this time of so much need it is astounding (at least to me) how so few seek to see and understand anew!  The willingness to do so requires letting go of our egoic attachments.  To quote Tolstoy:

The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of a doubt, what is laid before him.

Learning to be more efficient and effective at doing what we believe is not sufficient.  We cannot progress by holding onto and not challenging our beliefs and assumptions. We must begin to understand that the viability of humankind rests on its ability to learn how to learn—to learn at a higher level.  Yes we each must let go of what we believe—and now is the best time to do so—so that we can perceive and conceive a better way of being-in-this-world.  We mustn’t wait until the destructive forces—that we largely bring about—darken our doorway.  Unless we focus on truly educating people—on freeing the mind to think critically—and less on training for skills that keeps the profit making machine runnin g we are destined for extinction.

One thought on “Business Management Education—Think Again

  1. Pingback: Better Makes Better | For Progress, Not Growth

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s