Friday, August 03, 2012

Ideas for A Business School

Let's call it the Employability headwind, which is causing trouble in education. There are people who say it should be obvious: A person goes to college to get a job! But, really, is that it? Do you think someone really toils through all those deadlines, disappointments, vexing moments so that they can get a job? To toil through again, under someone else's wishes, carrying out rather unimportant tasks through a lifetime perhaps? Even if we are talking about graduate jobs here (if we accept there is such a thing, they must be fast disappearing), it is likely to be short term. There is no more lifelong employment, it has already been told, only lifelong learning. So, what is this big noise that college must be solely for employment?

Okay, I accept there is a difference between 'for employment' and 'for employability', and we should go for the latter. However, the former is the only indicator of the latter - we can't prove employability if the student does not get an employment - and education for employability is most likely to be reduced to education for employment very quickly. Getting a job, which may not last too long, may become the sole purpose of college education. How very silly?

This is exactly the kind of thing which creates educational ponzi schemes that we see all around us now. I know of an Indian Business School which quite successfully claims to top an employability ranking table which they themselves have created, and get the students meekly hand in a substantial sum of money for the privilege of being educated there. The education isn't much except a lot of training on looking smarter and acquiring modern consumer habits and hairstyle etc., but the main lure is a guaranteed job in the end. It really works this way: Almost all the students, after completing an MBA (which isn't accredited), go on to work for a consultancy firm which is a subsidiary of the institution, where they get paid an annual salary, which is decent by Indian standards, but equivalent to about 25% of the fees they paid. Indeed, this job is only for an year - no lifelong jobs, students have already been told in the first semester - and after that, places must be made vacant for the students coming up next in the queue. It is a brilliant scheme that works as long as new students keep buying into this con, but this is education for employability at its worst.

As I work now to set up a new school, I am trying to work through this employability noise to rediscover purpose-driven education again. It may sound idealistic, but that's perfectly in my patch: I am idealistic and I know too well the dangers of commoditized education, an environment I have spent some time in.  I have seen, first hand, what happens when education becomes purely a means to an end, and stays there: It is not silly to expect that education should expand the mind, make the recipient of education more engaged with his/her world, make him/her more perceptive. But once we start on the tracks of education for employability (or for a degree or for a visa), it is an endless slipping slope. It isn't any different in the upper end of the education spectrum too: How many billions should one man have is the opening question that marked the beginning of Harvard Business School for Philip Delves Broughton (in his excellent and insightful What They Teach You At Harvard Business School) and it is almost always the goal that trump the process of education. A friend, who went to a top Business School in Europe, tells me that it is not about the learning - he might not have learnt much - but the access to the network that really matters in a business school.

One could say that the Business Schools should be like that: Practical, focused, goal-centric, a place to network. One of India's pioneering private Business Schools used to advertise as 'a place to study and make friends for life' with an accompanying video where a girl and a boy walked together holding hands. Coming just around India's economic modernization when social mobility picked up and attitudes towards sex started changing, that played out very well for them, making them the largest in terms of student numbers very quickly indeed.

Thorstein Veblen thought this would become the case and complained about the vocational corruption of Higher Education early in the twentieth century. On the other hand, Andrew Rosen, CEO of Kaplan, presents such vocational focus and education for a purpose as the only valid education model acceptable in the twenty-first, in his crisply written polemic favouring private education, Change.edu. We wish to swim against the stream for exactly the reason we are trying to set up a brand new school: I believe business education has lost its purpose and currently producing students without any perspective or ability to connect their learning to who they should become themselves. Business education is currently focused, largely, on creating humanoids in search of a boss, or a bonus, depending on which end of the spectrum the student is.

So, here is our alternate model, and we wish to create the school and train a new generation of business executives from across the world: A model that defines the purpose of the business in terms of the social goals it desires to serve, and sees business activities in the context; we try to see businesses not in terms of its legal form or size of the share capital, but its people dimension - who they employ and who they serve; and finally, we see management techniques not as manipulative toolkit but the art of human relationships that we so desperately need. We are trying to build a model connected to practice, indeed, but with the only difference that it does not accept the practice as a given, but interrogates and seeks to change it. This, in our approach, is the point of education: To be able to seek better ways of doing things. And, we want our students to read widely, travel, talk and have a broader perspective beyond management textbooks and models, we want them engaged with knowledge and outside world simultaneously, with the ability to filter out the noise and to ask the right questions. This may sound like liberal arts, but that is exactly what we intend to do - construct a vocational programme, on business in this case, in the liberal arts mould, with the motto of 'creativity, enterprise and technology', fused together. Nothing should be accepted as a given at this time of change, and that is precisely the point of why we are doing what we are doing.

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