Setting the Tone

Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.

- Theodore Roosevelt

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Approaches to Business Education

So, first step in the World College project, a middle-of-the-way, somewhat safe, step - the initiation of a Business School. No big deal, indeed. This is the most crowded field of education, particularly private education. In fact, a touch risky, given that there are league tables and campus recruitment salary benchmarks, the struggle for good professors and good students, both of which are in remarkably short supply. The business of business school, because of its dependence on performance parameters, is more about creating a club for already intelligent, already ambitious students. The success mantra is not to try anything exceptional, not to go out of the way.

The business education is indeed out of sync, at least a bit. We have a major crisis in the world economy because of the way we educate. Because, as some commentators put it, the focus is so much on creating clever rogues than thinking professionals. The whole business around MBA, the ubiquitous three-letter symbol of management excellence, suddenly looks too narrow, too limited, in the context of a rapidly changing world.

However, as I said, the whole business of business school is designed to be counter-intuitive. It is not about thinking deep, but about thinking fast; it is about treating people as resources, a company as a money-making machine and management as an art of manipulation. Though technology is putting enormous pressure on all the real world practises, business education is largely transfixed in Henry Ford's age. The new thinking in the discipline is actually coming from the edges - from psychology, sociology, education, technology - and the business education has suddenly become bereft of innovation.

Success corrupts: This will be the most obvious conclusion. The near universal acceptance of MBA as a benchmark of business excellence has spawned too much uniformity. You need to be Henry Mintzberg to think out of the way. Others are consigned to bland uniformity, an unified linguistic community [using expressions such as 'way to go', lots of three letter acronyms and consciousness about social classes such as VP and GM], a sure shot road to lifelong mediocrity. The problem is that this model is built in a different age, for a different age. In a world which is global, disrupted by technology, with aware customers and increasingly vigilante governments, where diversity is making a full-fledged comeback, such models are hopelessly out of date. As Sudhakar Ram puts it, we are in a Connected Age, where the industrial definitions of Success, Work, Well-Being, Learning, Consumption, all has to change. The business education is hopelessly behind cycle as far as such thinking is concerned.

So, as I set out to start a new business school, and negotiate various real world aspects of the job, setting an agenda in sync with the future, not with the past, will be of paramount importance. As a starting point, I see three core assumptions driving the agenda. The first is, as put by Mintzberg, Management is a practice and not a science. What this means, essentially, is that we don't know all the answers about what makes businesses tick, so let's stop pretending that we have fixed formula that will work every time. Rather, see this as a practice, where one explores and discovers, finds answers as one goes along. It is an important distinction in terms of business education: From providing answers, the business schools should talk about encouraging a spirit of enquiry. In lay terms, this means moving from arrogance to humility, from 'we know' to 'we seek', from formulaic approach to success to a commitment to progress. We want to put this at the core of the business school education.

Secondly, if the above sounded like fostering of self-doubt, it is not. It is about finding other sources of self-assurance than blinding arrogance. Such as creativity, and a real understanding of the mechanics of the world. A systematic understanding of allied disciplines, of psychology, education, sociology, technology, is helpful to imbibe the learner with dual attributes of humility and confidence. So, we have decided to adopt a strongly multi-disciplinary approach, backed by travel and exposure to global cultures, at the core of the business education.

Thirdly, as I mentioned before, this business school will be ready for the connected age. It is not just about technology, it is about technology in context, a deep understanding of human connectedness and our responsibility towards others. There is a rush in business education to teach ethics, but the way it is done suggests that this is something outside the core, a top-up, something to be followed like tax laws. But to survive the world of increasingly customer and regulatory vigilance, one needs to go a step further; to become sustainable businesses, a business may not just follow ethical practices, it should be about ethical practices. And, such a thing can not happen without first treating people as people. This is the founding proposition of the connected age, an acceptance that technologies of subjugation has indeed become technologies of liberation, and whereas Habermas moans the decline of the public domain, this is just the final step of 'enclosing' the world, at which point more fences will not make any sense and the whole edifice will come crumbling down.

In short, a business school for the future, and I am currently absorbed in its creation.

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