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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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To Be, Or Not-to-B-school?

Is management education relevant anymore? Are B-schools creating useful citizens, or just corporate citizens? Are they supposed to ignore non-business aspects of the society? How do they upgrade and redeem themselves?

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“The way business schools today compete leads students to ask, ‘What can I do to make the most money?’ and the manner in which faculty members teach allows students to regard the moral consequences of their actions as mere afterthoughts.”

—Joel M Podolny, former dean of Yale School of Management

The education sector is the only one where the consumer (student) becomes the product (alumni – whom the institute packages to attract future students). Purists are touchy about whether education should be seen as a business. Yet the reality is that education has become a big business, and not necessarily with altruistic intent. The growth of management science has given rise to a plethora of management education providers.

One would assume that students seek management education, not just for its content, but also for the context that their teachers could bring, and the credibility of such data, interpretation and teaching. Students, as consumers, and students and parents alike – as fee paying customers – expect returns on their investments in management education.

The societal compulsion is that we live in a credential-based world. Everyone recognises others with tags. Education institutes benefit from this rent-seeking societal pressure. The (recruiting) industry has adopted what’s a common framework to recruit by playing it safe with management educated students, so far.

The accepted verdict about a “good” management programme in general,seems to beits placements and the respective institutes’ claim of the highest salary at which it could place one of its students. Rarely do the institutes speak openly about how such a number stacks up with the industries in which the students are placed in.

Has this helped the industries grow with the quality of talent? Have they benefited from such proliferation of management education? Have they been able to have intellectual and skill set enhancement with what’s available as Human Resources?

Does a B-school qualification give guarantee of material success to its students? Does it provide comfort of an assured career path ahead? Does it teach its students of a values-based living?

*Critique for the sector

Over the past years, management practitioners and liberal-thinker-academicians have critiqued as well as criticised management education, in its current form.

They have observed the randomness and opacity of the management curriculum, models of management studies as plain prescriptive lessons and impractical for the VUCA ecosystem, evolving newer topics without rigour or empirical foothold, teaching capitalism as the only form of management aspiration, failure to offer practical skills to their students, westernising the entire curriculum as if the local market experiences are irrelevant, lack of faculty’s business experience and  industry network, being a slave to the various rankings, and critically for not instilling norms of ethical behaviour in future leaders.

*Indian experience

With a plethora of B-schools that opened up in India over the past two decades and the many who were existing before, most of them have been disappointing. In fact, India has over 6,000 business schools that offer MBA / PGDM / etc. Almost all of them claim to deliver management education with their own self-professed superlatives-laden adjectives. Much of these claims are plain English, and not empirically led.

In a market where ‘guaranteed’ placements seem to be positively pushing up the sentiment of those paying the fees, B-schools seem(ed) to be an attractive bet for parents to send their children to. While management education may be opening doors for the first job placement, do they shape better citizens of the future? As long as there is an ample queue for the admission offtake, will the management educators adapt and evolve?

With the opening of new management institutions every year, it does have an effect in the availability of quality trained-teaching-talent. Without this talent availability, it’s a cause of concern. Teaching involves hunger for knowledge, passion, commitment and hard work. Teaching is not a substitute fornot 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?

In this large cusp of digital disruption, upheaval of business models, geo-political changes and context of how society leads itself and how businesses function, management education has its challenge – of preparing itself for being relevant in the 21st Century society. It needs to have a purpose of existence.

For many years, management education programmes enjoyed respectability – both in the academia, and acceptance in the business world. Over time the faded image is a reflection of the past, when the student admissions were intrusively selective, and the industry pay offers were temptingly alluring.

The decline in academic excellence in management education, and its missing contextual need is a worrying sign. It is more so just as the global trends around the olden management concepts are being challenged and often being proved wrong.

If one visits a multi-discipline education campus, it is highly likely that the newest and most swanky building will be occupied by its business school. Simply because it is the cash-cow across all the academic disciplines. It makes the biggest profits. It gives the right glamour quotient to that campus. It gives bragging rights to its stakeholders.

This is probably how management schools evolved as good business themselvesbut failed the generation.

*Can industry ever participate?

The aspirational wish-list is that the industry and academicians would work together – progressively and collaboratively, for bettering the learning methods, standards and delivering value to all stakeholders. This keeps being often repeated in various seminars that discuss what’s needed to build a skilled next generation. Yet, the (recruiting) industry has not shown much interest in participating in discussions regarding the academic pedagogy upgrades or content development or participating in the process as visiting faculty.

It is also fair to point out that many academicians don’t even bother to work on high quality industry research and industry consulting initiatives. Their duties seem relegated to the vestiges of delivering lectures with oft-repeated notes and case studies that are not just outdated, but also lack depth of understanding of what industry currently wants.

No wonder that it was easy for recruiters to use some base-level graded system that formal management education system provided, and in retraining the recruits to suit their business needs. Isn’t it worrying considering that industries and enterprises are increasingly facing dynamic competition in the marketplace? Management schools have to bring in philosophy where human intelligence and innovation can thrive together. This is where industries have to give a range of inputs periodically as well as in being the change drivers for the B-schools.

*Current context

A cynic would observe that management education has become a conveyor belt industry. They would mention that it simply, but consistently, offers various line-processes like multiple subjects, few specialities, methodology including classroom based lectures, projects, case studies, internships, assignment based scoring, regular tests – all across multiple semesters, without much customisation to market needs.

Of late, management schools are under immense pressure from prospective employers for different kinds of skill sets they expect the students to possess. Every student recruited into the industry is expected to be job-ready from day-one, a critical expectation flaw for industry and academia have not worked together on this.

And a topicnotspoken much about is “entrepreneurship”, which many youngsters are looking to grow in. Given that the industries need, not just managers, but also innovators and problem-solvers, this is where management schools can evolve by offering practice-oriented learning, with exposure to the actual economy and markets, and not just in a bookish way.

For this, the curriculum must be in-sync with the market needs and how the worldly affairs are impacting the business existence. Thinking capabilities should be nurtured, and built in the learning methods to equally teach the students of their social responsibilities, larger community impact initiatives and practical application of innovations.

The students will enormously benefit from Experiential learning methods. This is where all the theories they learn can be applied to face real-life challenges. This is where the recruiters benefit from having young minds sparkling ideas and newer perspectives.

*Case studies as a case study

The rise of new-age startups and knowledge-centric gig-economy roles are a sign of larger transformative disruptions in the society. None of the startups or new-economy businesses have had any precedence or textbooks to learn from. Students are studying decades-old cases that were designed for a different time – when technology, regulations, consumer behaviour didn’t disrupt and change entire industries at such a scary pace.

The world’s first programme in ‘Master of Business Administration’ began at the Harvard Graduate School of Business and Administration in 1908. The business schools of the earlier era, catered to the need of the industrial enterprises. Even the management schools at large universities are named after leaders of that industrial era. For example, Alfred Sloan, the former 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 Global Financial Crisis 2008 over the previous 100 years, Harvard added new initiatives forexperiential 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 and 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 if they could control opex and maximise labour productivity, without interruptions of any kind – labour, regulatory, etc.

The businesses in the Creator-economy are wired very differently. They don’t have variables like plant and machinery. Their investments and OpEd are majorly in talent cost. They have been able to grow their business impact and with much scale and profitability.

With this context, can case studies prepare the students to succeed in a world that is changing faster than at the pace at which cases can even be written?

*Regulatory chasm

Technology and industrial disruptions are a given; history has demonstrated thatlarge disruptions impact societal values and influence behavioural changes. The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4th IR) is a bigger disruption. It has enormous potential to do positive for humankind.

And yet it can have a trail ofdownside risksincludingdisruption in conventional methods of employment, thereby drastically reducing the number of jobs available in the eco-system and increasing theurgency to retool the entire education and skilling thinking and methodologies.

Policy makers have to rethink their regulatory systems for management education. The old philosophy of measuring and governing management education hastens the decay of the concept in the first place. The market mechanism will correct the standards. The concept of licensing management education only makes licence-hoarding a practice that only those who can afford it in the first place participate in. What is measured and how it is unbiasedly measured should be the input to regulating the B-schools. If any regulatory framework can bring in consumer rights protection and enhance continual-learning offerings, it would be welcome.

The current management education regulations, objectives of those regulations and the philosophy of learning don’t seem to have any correlation. Regulatory decay of sorts, over the decades, has allowed for ugly academic jealousy, petty politics to damage the moral fabric of what should have been the pillar of GDP-growth.

*Revving our academicians

The morass of management education has been in our failure to upgrade the capabilities, knowledge and teaching methodologies of our teachers. There seems either little interest from the management education academic world to be contemporary with what’s happening across the economy, markets and enterprises. Or even little interest of those owning the management schools in getting their teachers development programmes upgraded. Or worse off, both. The sufferer is the student community. In this regard, the professionals from various industrial sectors must devote some time to become adjunct facilities to teach their domain area. This would bring market content and industry relevance to the B-schools.

B-schools often use outdated curriculum, having less or ornamental focus on skill-building, struggling 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, team work, and the ability to grasp and manage complexity and dynamics at the workplace.

A good teacher has the urge for constant learning, passion for teaching and commitment towards their students’ growth. Teaching is not a substitute fornot getting any other job! There again, not every successful manager becomes a good teacher.How do we train sufficient management teachers to impart knowledge?

Students preference of management specialisation will often be influenced by what Industry onboards as an important need. Or where the higher pay packets are being offered. No doubt, we see decrease in the off take of some of the traditional courses in the management schools.

An impactful business school won’t be just about good physical and digital infrastructure, but it will also have excellent quality of faculty, research capabilities, pedagogy, alumni and industry network, and regular industry-oriented specialisations. While it is expected that B-schools will get the students ready for business of the future, sadly many of these institutes don’t know the future of their own business.

*Navigating in the VUCA world

This past Indian decade has seen phenomenal rise of first generation young entrepreneurs. This, coupled with technology disruption and general social acceptance of entrepreneurship, poses a stark question on management education. What do B-school graduates learn more than non-management-schooled successful entrepreneurs? What is a business school about?

In the creator economy, a 21-year-old influencer has better consumer base following and wealth creations possibilities. This sharp shift in the economic context will start hurting the sectoral relevance of management education.

Future business leaders will need skills that will help them face and solve unprecedented business challenges, digital thinking, continuous learning ability, the ability to make data-driven decisions, and critical thinking. Meritocracy, design thinking and out-of-box ingenuity is the need of the hour. Not the status-quoist mediocrity, rote learning or subservience to western business methods that we subconsciously teach in most of our management schools.

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.

*Values that matter

In an unequal world that we live in, and with social problems of extremism of many evolving ideologies, B-schools are also expected to be updated in these. Instead of a narrow focus on capitalist business practices, they are expected to bring “responsibility”, “ethics”, “sustainability”, “social impact” to the fore.

Often, in the current format, business ethics and corporate social responsibility are additional subjects taught as an afterthought, to sound nice. They don’t become core value or the heart of the existential programme. In real life, business is not a stand-alone aspect in the society. Social behaviour and economic outcomes and their causal effect have an impact on ethics, integrity, sustainability, and vice versa.

Here is where Intellectual activism, as propounded by Professor Patricia Hills Collins, becomes important. She described how the “power of ideas” can work for social justice. Management education should research, understand and impart knowledge and practices that can serve public interest. This is where individual thinking and collective deliberation as teaching methods can help students grasp how social institutions and rules have (or can be) developed to co-exist with business.

Agile and active business schools have been integrating sustainability-related topics in their management education programmes. They discuss sustainability as a basic business need and understand the risk implications for its absence. In this responsible capitalism mode, they are able to teach students that purpose and profit could co-exist well. Call it responsible capitalism, if you will.

*Reimagine, Reinvent & Rescue

Warren Bennis and James O’Toole, wrote in Harvard Business Review that“In fact, business is a profession, akin to medicine and the law, and business schools are professional schools – or should be. Like other professions, business calls upon the work of many academic disciplines. For medicine, those disciplines include biology, chemistry, and psychology; for business, they include mathematics, economics, psychology, philosophy, and sociology.”

It is a given that enterprises are always looking for talented employees who can participate in and contribute to their growth. The businesses want engaged contributors to their growth, and only those who can do so despite the pressures of the VUCA environment, will survive.

Management schools should reimagine and reinvent themselves. Their content should bring concerns of the future, call it – future of the future. Aspiring future business leaders should also learn about the economic impact of social aspects like damaged ecology, climate change, human inequality, social injustice, instability in political economies, changing geo-political contours, emerging technologies and concerns over its misuse, etc.

Management education should empower future business leaders to appreciate the complexion of the current and emerging socioeconomic and natural systems. They should get them empathetic to the trade-offs involved with corporate decisions. After all, each of these decisions have a larger price to pay – individually or collectively as a society. It is urgent that we realise that each of these future business leaders who pass out of the management schools will be contributing to the positives and negatives of how the world shapes up. This is where values-based management education will seek to get them to reflect on their roles and responsibilities as civic society stakeholders.

Management schools that don’t see the winds of change all around, and those who are happy with the status quo, or with incremental change at best, will hit a roadblock soon. If they cannot bring in non-business values-based elements to blend into their teachings, they might even find an existential crisis. If they don’t innovate urgently, their obsolescence will be the outcome. If management schools cannot help their consumers, that is the students, with a high level of interpersonal skills, emotional intelligence and industry experience, then it’s simply much ado about nothing. It’s an urgent need to reimagine management education from the users’ perspective.

Be relevant. Be realistic. Be real-time.

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management education business schools b-schools education