Saturday, February 12, 2011

A School For Business 2.0

The project I am involved in, setting up a new Business school in East London, is at an interesting juncture. It is starting to become real. One can see the physical shape of it now, as we have now finalized the building and in the final stages of acquiring it and getting the planning permission. We can also see the concept - as contracts with university partners get signed and ideas are debated and partnerships solidify - and start thinking about the possibilities. In short, we are at that point of the start-up life cycle when everything looks full of possibilities.

This is also the time to search for a purpose. We started with some ideas of what we want to do - to set up a world class business school ready for the web 2.0 world - but now, we have to distill all of it and arrive at some understanding why we are doing it. I must clarify: This isn't about writing a tag line. That would be done eventually. Nor it is about doing something first time in the world. I had all those illusions before, but now I would settle for something that makes a difference, rather than which is completely different from everything else that was done before.

Some people say this is a bit muddled, the search for purpose somewhere down the road. For them, business is a rather clinical exercise and you should know where you are going before you set off. That is exactly what is taught in the entrepreneurship classes, in the bit about writing business plans. However, I have been in businesses, some successful and some less so, and I shall vote for the ubiquity of emergent purpose. In short, often you start with a vague idea, a sense of what's missing, but hardly you do the pen-and-paper purpose statement before you start. In fact, some businesses never do it at all. And, yet others, keep changing it. It is good to say that you should know exactly where you are going before you start; and, also, to say that enterprise is all about being flexible, seeing opportunities and taking them; indeed, those two statements can't go together.

This is a classic example where I shall argue that business is a human activity. It has all the marks of a human activity, being error-prone, creative and regenerative. It is wrong to see it as a rational exploration of options on the table; options, as they are, rarely sit quietly on the table waiting to be explored. That is not just a bad metaphor, but a fundamentally flawed way of looking at things which form the core of business thinking and business education today: The search for overt rationality. I shall argue that the belief that business is a rational activity and therefore, one can 'model' scenarios, using appropriate statistical probabilities, is exactly the reason for the current financial crisis: The models did not work because the assumption of rationality is wrong.

This itself gives me a sense of purpose for the business school: To be able to prepare leaders for the 'humane' business. We think the world is changing - the pre-eminence of cold rationality is over. In every domain, technical thinking is being challenged by social constructivism, that 'facts' are actually opinions seen in an all pervasive context, and business is no exception. Suddenly, the business philosophy built over a hundred years look extremely fragile. It seems that we set out a journey a century back and when we reach its end, the world does not look like as it was supposed to be. It looks far too messy and completely off the mark. We may need to rethink all the fundamental assumptions that we worked with so far, and particularly the fact that human beings act rationally most of the time.

Interestingly, we started out defining our purpose to be a web 2.0 ready business school. The point of being on the cutting edge of technology was not about being technical, but to analyze the full impact these technologies are having. For example, think leadership. In an information poor world, we were better off being led by a leader, who, like a spider, sat at the center of the world and knew what's going on. But with information abundance, we are in starfish territory: We are better off with personal knowledge and personal decisions. Marketing changes from broadcast to podcast and interactive, finance changes from bottom line to value migration, business models evolve from value chain to network based. One can say technology is changing everything; seen the other way, technology is just making it more human.

We are integrating traditional business curricula with technology savvy and creative thinking. We see the new school to be a meeting point, of entrepreneurs, technologists and creative thinkers, and we see the learning will happen in this social context, by connecting the dots with patterns of one's one rather than mastering a syllabus. The underlying theme - discover the human with technology - is important, because it is counter-intuitive.

We never articulated this goal earlier, but working on hunches, we moved along a similar path. We are creating interesting MBA programmes which are quite different from the MBA we offer now, and which has a lot more space for Social Learning than the current curricula. We are also building a lot of interconnected support mechanism - online learning, custom texts, employer network sessions and tutor surgeries - with the objective of helping students leap into the new world of business. We are also creating a set of interesting undergraduate programmes, in creative media and technology, which we expect to go hand in hand with our business courses. Finally, we are putting in a lot of effort to put together a programme on entrepreneurship, with a focus on social entrepreneurship, the most humane side of the 'humane' business we are talking about.

In summary, then, this is an interesting time. Someone told me in today's education, it is not what resources you have but what conversations you are having. We intend to have lots of conversations, debates and exploration of what really is new in New Business. The school, which will eventually be named (School of Digital Business is one of the favourites), will be our contribution to the ongoing debate about the nature of business in the post-recession world.

2 comments:

Niti said...

I think this is a wonderful idea. Although with experience I have realised that most B-Schools promise entrepreneurship and fail miserably at imbibing them in the students.

I did my MBA in Delhi and the one thing that I took back from it - being a manager and being an entrepreneur are two very different things. The different being the ability to think.

Just like you said, the conversations one holds is way more important than the resources one has. Without a doubt, technology helps. But what needs to be worked on is at the core - the very mindset.

While I was in London for my Creative Writing Course, a student from Greece was doing his BBA at the same university. The problem is the same across the world, people just don't know their own purpose for pursuing a degree in business management.

I would love to see a B-School that can work at the core of the problem. Give the students a purpose in what they are doing.

Being an entrepreneur is entirely personal. Kotler gave us marketing rules, but how you apply them depends on the one taking the decision.

Supriyo Chaudhuri said...

Thanks Niti.

The point you raise about entrepreneurs and managers are being two different kinds of people is precisely the kind of things we want to debate. Indeed, managing is a very human activity, and managing without entrepreneurial imagination can be a dreary thing. Some may argue that the roots of management thinking came from Military, but as Norman Dixon's On The Psychology of Military Incompetence tells us, disconnected and unimaginative military leadership is a recipe for sure failure.

We are bringing together diverse perspectives, of History, Social Sciences, Psychology and indeed Economics, to create a true interdisciplinary business course. Indeed, the Business Administration is supposed to be interdisciplinary, but somehow the whole business was reduced to a simple money fetishism. The objective of the new business school is to broaden the debate one more time.

Supriyo

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