Thursday, June 16, 2011

On Setting Up The Business School

The project I have worked on for a full year is coming into some shape now. We are going to shape up a school within a school - a specialist business school within the college which offers a range of courses in different subject areas. In a way, this is indeed something to feel good about. However, at the same time, this is a strange time to set up a Higher Ed entity in Britain, when the universities are in turmoil and there is a full scale clampdown on student visas.

But this post is not about the business environment, but about my personal journey. The last year was my self-defined period of recuperation, from my burn-out experience from the previous job. I have traveled little: In fact, except a short trip to Malaysia and the Philippines, I have not traveled at all during the year. I have focused on just one thing - setting up of this school - and made building network within the British Higher Ed sector my first priority. I have also invested a lot of time studying about higher education, committing myself to studies worth 75 credit points towards my MA, something which has nearly driven me mad. The work was also fraught with frustration, not least because the environment was so changeable: Just when I seemed to have won the vote of confidence on the project, the Home Secretary announced a set of near-draconian visa rule changes and I had to go back to the drawing board again to redo the plans. Then, as we were to ink a deal with an university, all of a sudden the government delayed the publication of the white paper, which is supposed to outline the details of the new funding regime, which led to a freeze, from the university's side, of all collaborative efforts.

However, despite all those near catastrophic events, each one of which could have permanently derailed the project, we moved forward. Indeed, it was not one idea of the business school, but each one of us around the table had different ideas. Even after we identified the building, different ideas kept emerging - from doing A level courses to setting up incubation centers - and we had to work inside and outside work to keep our eyes on the ball. It is not a battle fully won yet, but I guess we are now very very close.

So, what's the point of a business school in a city infested with business schools? I shall argue there is still a gap in the market. The business schools mainly prepare its students for big company careers - that of a 'company man' - whereas more than 80% of the British workforce are employed in small and medium businesses. I know it does not make good marketing copy to say that after doing our MBA, you will work for SomeCo, but that's the reality. In fact, it makes good copy to say that after the MBA, you will be able to own or run SomeCo: That's what we are going to do.

Second problem, most business schools operate with assumptions which are so last century. They may have moved from the days of scientific management (which, in most cases, isn't true), but their thinking is firmly rooted in the age of 'economic man', the sort of paradigm we lived with just before the current recession. Our school, being small and nimble, can become a truly post-recession business school, focused on small businesses as well as the ideas and formations emerging from the new economics.

Finally, technology. Most of the business schools are still firmly wedded to technologies of mass information. Again, we may have moved from the age of industrial technologies to information technologies, but in most cases, we are still in the broadcast age as far as teaching is concerned. We are trying to move into the age of conversation, the age of 'back channel' if I could call it that. So, the business school we set up will be dedicated to the post-prosperity, post-industrial business owners and managers, who are constantly worried about environmental and social impact, revolutionary changes in technology and society and at home with globalization. This should be the case for all managers today, but I shall argue that most business courses in Britain are not yet there.

Interestingly, our business school will not just offer business courses, but a range of courses in Media, Technology and Business and Entrepreneurship. The key idea to create a shared space for cross-discipline conversation - focused around Creativity, Enterprise and Technology - in alignment with our location in East London, the emerging Digital Media hub in Britain. In fact, we are hopeful that the Media Centre set up for 2012 Olympics, which is down the road from us, will eventually become some sort of hub for Digital Media industries as a part of Olympic Legacy (succeeding Soho and what's now being called Sho-Ho, the area around Shoreditch and Hoxton). We are indeed planning to integrate an exhibition space for digital media work of our students, an incubation infrastructure as well as a digital showcase, and I am hopeful that this will connect our students with the fastest growing industry in Britain.

Lest I give the impression that this new school is about Digital Media, it is not. It is about business, leadership, entrepreneurship etc. However, we believe that we live today with technology, with a high consumption of media, which is evolving into ever greater interactivity. Our teaching in business will be firmly situated in the context. This, I am hopeful, will make the student's learning more relevant to the world of work s/he is going to face afterwards.

So here we are: Almost there. But I am mindful of a problem. Dreaming up ideas was never a problem with me, but in the past, I have made the cardinal sin of being too optimistic. The case in point was my immediate past experience, where I tried to create a worldwide network of English Language training with the backing of a mostly provincial and financially shaky business group. I have learned my lessons: I know that success of a venture is closely related to the abilities and values of its investors. Indeed, that's plain, but sometimes you miss the point by being too optimistic about the vision itself.

This time, I am mindful that we are trying to mould a very different entity, a college which excelled in professional Accountancy training, into this new institution. The basic assumptions are different. For example, in Accountancy training of that sort, one is trying to learn the rules and there is a defined body of knowledge; in the new business school, critical awareness of the changeability of the rules is the first thing the students should achieve. And, the difference isn't just philosophical, but practical. My battle now is to be able to leave some 'social' spaces in the design of the school, where the students and staff can come together for unstructured conversations and activities: In an accountancy school setting, where number of seats is the main profit driver, that's murder.

So, my efforts here are about negotiating the steps of a risky and ambitious journey. I have lot of personal sacrifices over the months to get here and hence, I am absolutely committed to see this through. I am indeed continuously mindful of the pitfalls and have taken great care in reconciling the steps - the aspirations of the school with the ethos of the mother-ship, the accountancy college - which was a great learning experience for me. It is personally demanding, to keep so many balls in the air - daily work, setting up of this new entity, a difficult business environment, studies in education - but I am hopeful that when I complete the work at hand, I will have finally done something meaningful.


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