However, we are at an inflection point yet again, when things are changing. We are in the middle of a prolonged recession, the worst since the pre-war Great Depression which defined a generation and shaped human thinking deeply. If anything, this is a time when private enterprise, at least the large corporations, loses its halo of infallibility. With that, the prestige and status of business education will become severely dented.
So, what’s needed is a fundamental rethink, of business and business education. The economists are calling for it. Raghuram Rajan, formerly the Chief Economist of World Bank and now in University of Chicago, warns of the hidden dangers which can reverse the current, fragile, global economic recovery. One of the things he wants to see changed is the culture of business education [Rajan, 2010].
Such demands are not new. Practitioners such as Henry Mintzberg has been demanding a change for a long time. Mintzberg’s [Mintzberg, 2004] objections to the current credo of business education are manifold, but they centre around the practice of teaching management as a school leaving qualification. However bright the person may be, how can one be taught management if one has never managed, and therefore, does not know whether s/he has the ‘will to manage’? Mintzberg went as far as to create an alternate global programme, International Masters Programme in Practising Managers [IMPM], which brought together business schools from different countries to offer a unified, global programme for people with prior management experience.
The lack of prior management experience may hinder the effectiveness of the skills taught, but there are other, deeper problems which Mintzberg himself points out in a recent interview [Mintzberg, 2010]. Owing to its origins in sciences like Economics and Psychology, and due to the popularization of concepts like Scientific Management by FW Taylor in the early Twentieth century, there is a tendency to see Management as a science. This is why business education has become a lot about understanding set concepts and formulas, or at least ‘best practices’, which creates a mindset of infallibility. However, as Mintzberg points out, we know far less than we pretend to about management. Since the people, the subject of management, and the business environment, are both so unpredictable, almost somewhat messy, it is only fair to define management as a practice, where you generate knowledge as you go along and learn further by application. [Mintzbeg, 2009] A similar point was made by Donald Schon (schon, 1990) in his seminal work on Reflective Practice. The current events have demonstrated the limitations of the scientific approach: Uncertainty is indeed not a probability to be considered into an equation, but a hard truth of life. The scientific approach to business education often attempts to provide all answers, and therefore, come in the way of maintaining the spirit of generative enquiry.
The other key issue in business education is the narrow focus on tools and technologies of management, which strips it of its social context. Businesses primarily were, and still are, social organizations where people came together in the interest of economic activity. The fundamental social nature of business is all too evident for many commentators, including Mintzberg(2009) and Birkenshaw(2010).
However, the tool-based structure and focus of business education, not to mention the reward structures that follows completion of it, significantly undermines the social nature of business itself. After a stream of well-publicised run-ins with community and governments [latest of which is currently played out in the Gulf of Mexico by BP], there is an increased consciousness about the ‘social responsibility’ of business: Business schools now pride themselves about inclusion of subjects such as Corporate Social Responsibility and Ethics in the curriculum they teach. However, the very inclusion of those subjects help to highlight the current limbo the business education is into; the socially unconnected nature of a practice which play a large role in our society today.
So, the current attention on the state of business education, put in prominence by the current state of disrepair our economies and businesses are in, is welcome. This may start a process of lasting change, leading to a more liberal curriculum, which may have lower doses of blind self-confidence and greater humility and ability to reflect. The social situatedness of effective business education is all too obvious from the lives of successful business people. Successful businesses have already understood the maxim – the workers are paid for certain types of work, but it is the whole person comes to work: Such ideas need to percolate down to the business of business education.
Birkenshaw, J (2010) Reinventing Management. London: John Wiley & Sons.
Mintzberg, H. (2004) Managers Not MBAs. London: Financial Times/ Prentice Hall.
Mintzberg, H. (2009) Managing. London: Financial Times/ Prentice Hall.
Mintzberg, H. (2010), Management By Reflection: An Interview by Art Kleiner, Strategy+Business. Available on http://www.strategy-business.com/article/00025.
Rajan, R (2010) Fault Lines: How Hidden Fractures Still Threaten The Global Economy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Schon, D (1990) Educating the Reflective Practitioner: Toward a New Design for Teaching and Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.