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BW Businessworld

Not Just A Game

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Competing faculties have long looked upon management as an easy option; teachers of other subjects have believed that management did not require as much rigour as their own subjects. This concern has begun to gather strength in the academic world of the US: doubts have been expressed about the quality of management degrees, believed to be low and declining. Business education has been the fastest-growing discipline in the US for some decades; fears have now arisen that the expansion has gone along with a fall in standards. Management degrees are supposed to lead to better jobs. Instead of management graduates having to look for jobs, employers come and court them even before they have finished their degrees. This reputation of management degrees is not unfamiliar to us in India, for our good management schools see the same scramble from employers — and they are employers who pay better than average.

One practice that other disciplines frown on is group coursework. It has distinguished the management faculty since its birth; students have been required to work together on a project, and submit a joint document in which the students' separate contributions are not distinguished. The idea is that cooperation is an essential characteristic of corporate work; corporate employees have to work with others, and their success is a joint achievement. Group assignments are supposed to reproduce this work environment and impart cooperative skills. But they also lead to an indeterminate division of work between students, and to the impossibility of determining the quantity and the quality of their individual efforts. Management students can simply sail through this part of assessment in the view of people from other disciplines.

When it comes to the content of the management discipline, outsiders suspect lack of academic rigour. To them, a good deal of management literature sounds like homilies about how to be nice and how to get on. They are right in one respect: management is a normative discipline. It is not just theory of how the world works, but lessons about how to adapt to it and how to change it — at any rate, how to change one's work environment. It may sound like a modern version of theology; whereas scriptures were devoted to the art of how to get on in the next world, management scriptures are devoted to the art of how to get on in this world.

But whereas the rules of heaven and hell are a mystery and a guess, the way this world works is there for all to see. Management gurus have observed it, analysed it, and sought rules on how to be more effective in it. Whether devoutness improves anyone's chances in next life must remain a matter of speculation, at any rate in this world; whether good management improves the fate of a business is an empirical question, and many have sought answers to it from facts.

One may question whether they have drawn the right lessons from them. Management studies often sound like versions of Atlas Shrugged  — rather monotonous stories of heroism or folly as the case may be. This is a criticism which could be taken more seriously by the discipline. It is not enough to describe what happened; for management to become an academic discipline, a critical view of what happened is necessary. It is not taken in all management literature. But management is not the only discipline in which there are qualitative variations; they are common to all disciplines. There is an entire branch of economics devoted to the worship of free markets; it does not mean that all economics is ritual.

An area where belief has perhaps inhibited enquiry is social variations in business environment. Business exists in every society, but the way in which it is practised is influenced by local customs and usages. These variations in practice are not ignored in management education; all management colleges use local material to teach. That material could well be inadequate. Its analysts fall into certain schools, they choose certain ways of looking at it, and their analysis tends to fall into stereotypes.

But if there is such a tendency, it is not irremediable. It offers an argument for asking more questions and viewing facts in new ways — something that would be of value in all disciplines, not just in management. Disciplines that have been around longer have a more settled body of knowledge. Management as a discipline is just about a century old; it still has far to go. As societies change and new businesses arise, it will find new territories to conquer. Both its youth and its subject matter are arguments for doing management studies more and better.

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 02-05-2011)