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Srinath Sridharan

Independent markets commentator. Media columnist. Board member. Corporate & Startup Advisor / Mentor. CEO coach. Strategic counsel for 25 years, with leading corporates across diverse sectors including automobile, e-commerce, advertising, consumer and financial services. Works with leaders in enabling transformation of organisations which have complexities of rapid-scale-up, talent-culture conflict, generational-change of promoters / key leadership, M&A cultural issues, issues of business scale & size. Understands & ideates on intersection of BFSI, digital, ‘contextual-finance’, consumer, mobility, GEMZ (Gig Economy, Millennials, gen Z), ESG. Well-versed with contours of governance, board-level strategic expectations, regulations & nuances across BFSI & associated stakeholder value-chain, challenges of organisational redesign and related business, culture & communication imperatives.

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Reimagining Management Education

The theoretical thinking is that industry and academicians would work together, progressively and collaboratively, for bettering the learning standards and delivering value to all stakeholders.

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Most of the plethora of business schools that opened up in India over the past two decades and the many that existed from before, are an utter disappointment. A look at their lack of proactive preparedness for 21st Century concepts shows that they have failed utterly in their purpose. But the mad frenzy of that sinking-feeling that a formal management educational qualification will fast-track jobs and the career-path, is what also propelled and still propels, a generation of parents to pay up for their kids’ education.

In this endeavour, management schools have turned into good business propositions, but have failed the generation. But for a few outliers, the woefully low standards of management education, right from content to methodology to delivery, is only matched by the various attempts at so-called educational rankings by various brands, including the media houses. It’s a jamboree out there!

The MBA, sadly, seems to stand for Much-Below-Average! The decay of academic excellence sounds the death knell of quality management education. Especially at a time, when the global trends around management concepts are fast changing and testing the theories espoused in the previous century!

Reality Shocks Expectations

The theoretical thinking is that industry and academicians would work together, progressively and collaboratively, for bettering the learning standards and delivering value to all stakeholders. This has been more than a pipe dream – worse than the dream to send the first Indian to Mars by 2025!

The industry has not shown much interest in participating in academic pedagogy upgrades or content development or teaching as visiting faculty. Academicians have not showcased much high quality primary research and industry consulting attempts, and hence have delivered their lectures from the altar of old notes and presentations.

Management education currently seems to be hell-bent on putting students through a conveyor-belt approach. Put them through multiple semesters, same subjects and specialities offered for the past many years is still par-for-the-course: Marketing, Finance, Human Resources, Operations. Few schools have specialised industry-focus like retail, banking, oil and gas, energy, pharmacy, etc. The usual process of case studies (most of them outdated and/or redundant), multiple assignments, regular examinations or tests, classroom based rigid training –  all over two years – is expected to make the minds of the students blossom with eagerness and inquisitiveness!

Most lecture notes are even available online. In most cases, it depends on the quality of the teachers on whether or not they can help students shine in real life qualities and not just in the theoretical learning (or cramming).

Regulatory Bureaucracy

Technology and industrial disruptions are a given. History has demonstrated that large disruptions impact societal values and influence behavioural changes. While humans have adapted themselves to a newer normal with every disruption, the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4th IR) is a bigger disruption. It has enormous potential to do good for humankind. And have a trail of downside risks including disruption in conventional methods of employment, thereby drastically reducing the number of jobs available in the eco-system and increasing the urgency to retool the entire education and skilling thinking and methodologies.

In today’s times, the question of an old-school regulatory framework for management education seems self-defeating in itself. After all, if the market mechanism can drive up better quality standards and serve the student community better – consequently helping industry get better trained ready-talent –  forceful bureaucratic interventions are not needed. And even assuming that the market mechanism is not effective at times, the 20th Century ideology that few within society have to govern the rest, won’t solve issues in the tertiary education system. If any framework can bring in consumer rights protection and enhance continual-learning offerings, it would be welcome. The outdated ideology of  trying to be a watchdog with pedantic methods would not serve anyone, especially the students!

The regulatory framework like helicopter-parenting, for lack of speedy reinvention, has hurt the education industry by allowing for status-quoism as a sign of existence, and mere-incremental-progress as its hallmark. Meritocracy of qualitative teaching aspects don’t necessarily find high weightage in this journey so far. It is the “control and influence” aspect of  this regulatory face, that the industry can’t even take action on a poorly performing staff or the academic institution itself. Education and learning don’t seem to have any correlation.

Regulatory decay of sorts, over the decades, has allowed the ugly head of academic jealousy, petty politics to damage the moral fabric of what should have been the pillar of GDP growth, and what should have aided in nation-building.

Excellence in Academics

We should revamp our education pedagogy with the aim to inculcate multiple skills to each individual, as part of the mainstream education system. For this to be successful, we also need to upgrade our teachers’ development programme, which is currently dinasourous at best! With both of these initiatives, the education framework will give respectability to the fact that skilling is a formal part of  it and not an alternative to mainstream education. Teacher upskilling and industrial training modules and also having adjunct faculties who work in their domain sectors will help bring market content.

B-schools are using outdated curriculum, with less focus on skill-building, unable to establish ‘industry connect’ and failing to inculcate attributes that are valued by today’s employers, such as problem-solving and decision-making skills, leadership, working effectively as a team member, intrapreneurship, and the ability to grasp and manage complexity and dynamics in organisations and in the profession.

Teaching involves hunger for knowledge, passion, commitment and hard work. Teaching is not a substitute for not getting any other job! At the same time, not every successful manager can be a good teacher or vice versa. How do we train sufficient management teachers to impart knowledge?

For example, a full-professor with a PhD qualification would have finished her or his graduation two decades ago. Imagine if you are a computer science professor and are expected to teach robotics or AI or ML today! And yet, in order to offer the latest in say a B.E (AI) programme, where would regulations bring in such professors?

Students’ preference of subjects will be influenced by what Industry onboards as essential knowledge set along with critical skill sets as added bonus. No wonder, we see a decline in some traditional courses in management schools. For example, today the skill sets that are in need are writing a business plan for an ideation pitch or effectively demonstrating an idea for venture funding.

Experiential learning is where students benefit from applying their knowledge to real-life challenges and the companies gain fresh insights from bright young minds. With both students and corporate recruiters demanding fundamental changes to drive entrepreneurial thinking, management schools wanting to survive this onslaught will adapt quickly.

Genesis & Generational-Shifts

The world’s first programme in ‘Master of  Business Administration’ began at the Harvard Graduate School of Business & Administration in 1908. The earlier business schools catered to the need of the industrial companies. Even the management schools at large universities are named after leaders of the industrial era of the time. For example, Alfred Sloan, the ex CEO of General Motors, adorns the name at MIT Sloan. Faced with volatile demands for business education and multiple global events like world wars, volatile economic cycles, political upheaval, and the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 over the previous 100 years, Harvard added new initiatives for experiential learning. These included Field Immersion Experience for Leadership Development (FIELD) projects, Tech Simulations, Flipped and experimental classrooms, Introspective exercises and many more.

The Third Industrial Revolution companies of the 20th Century used physical components as inputs to produce goods as output. Their capital investments were in land, machinery, factories. Their OpEx was in labour, raw material, fuel and repairs. The role of the business manager was to ensure that their plant and machinery lasted longer and control opex and maximise labour productivity.

The businesses in the Creator-economy are a different breed altogether. They don’t have issues of plant and machinery, and their investments and operating costs are more about talent bench strength. Yet their ability to grow their business in quick time and to global scale is phenomenal.

Education in a VUCA World

Business schools in 2021 are under immense pressure from prospective employers for the different kinds of skill sets they expect the students to possess. Every job onboarding is expected to deliver results from day-one and meet targets flawlessly. And a topic not spoken much about is “entrepreneurship”, which many youngsters are looking to grow into. Can our run-of-the-mill case studies prepare students to succeed in a world that is changing faster than cases can be written? What are the gaps in those cases?

The rise of new-age startups and knowledge-centric gig-economy roles are adding to the changing business landscape. None of those startups or businesses have had any precedence or textbook to learn from. How can cases written ten years ago be relevant today? The changed-context makes the content irrelevant! The Covid pandemic has also shown that no case-study can be treated as an updated-playbook and those could not help decision makers by offering any ideas.

In this age of Industry 4.0, business disruption is evident from the fact that 54 per cent of the Fortune 500 companies from the year 2000 are extinct (remember Kodak?) and many other that could feature in the 2030 list may not have been born yet! McKinsey’s study suggests that the average life-span of Standard & Poor’s 500 firms was 61 years in 1958, which now stands at less than 18 years. It also believes that in 2027, 75 per cent of the companies currently quoted on the S&P 500 would have disappeared. Can we prepare management students for the future with the help of cases with vanishing examples?

Management education must progress from algorithmic learning to meeting the fundamental way corporations look at skill sets needed as essentials – problem solving, empathy, creativity, empathy, leadership, strategic thinking, understanding technological progress and disruption, crisis management, ability to thrive under a chaotic and dynamic world, and dynamic decision making. After all, it’s the VUCA world we live in, and yet we teach steady-state management concepts!

In a data-driven world powered by digital technology, companies are constantly evolving. Because management education is about preparing business leaders of tomorrow, we need to dynamically align curriculums with the ever-changing demands of the workplace.

Future business leaders will require skills that will help them tackle current and future business challenges, including a digital mindset, a focus on continuous learning, the ability to make data-driven decisions, and critical thinking. Meritocracy, design thinking and out-of-the- box ingenuity would be the play of the century, and not mediocrity or subservience that we subconsciously teach in most of our management schools.