This evening I’m going to attend the 10 year anniversary alumni dinner of my MBA year at Cranfield University. This is a bit of a first for me as I have rarely returned to my seats of learning, largely due to me leading student revolutions at most of them.
Recently in The Economist (“The pedagogy of the privileged”) “Schumpeter” argues that business schools have done little to reform themselves in the light of the credit crunch. The writer concludes:
“Business schools need to make more room for people who are willing to bite the hands that feed them: to prick business bubbles, expose management fads and generally rough up the most feted managers. Kings once employed jesters to bring them down to earth. It’s time for business schools to do likewise.”
A jester for a business school? I’d like to apply for the fun-poking, mickey-taking, fad-busting, bubble-pricking role. Amongst the many bubbles I’d like to burst:
Sales: Why do business schools rarely mention sales and would never stoop so low as actually to teach sales skills? Presumably they and their high flying students have risen to such heights that they have lost sight of the fact that a commercial organisation actually has to take money off people in return for its products. Every MBA student should be a natural salesman, of themselves, of their beliefs, of their company and even of their teachers (ref the Hippocratic Oath)
Teaching by Case Study: “There was a gust from the overhead duct, and my project manager certification floated onto my keyboard – no amount of Fun-Tak and tape could keep it attached…”. Mills and Boon or Harvard Business Review? Yep, HBR[i]. I really believe in the power of storytelling, but this stuff is drivel, and trying to answer serious questions posed by case studies is like trying to solve a murder mystery with half the clues removed. No, case studies do not make up for the fact that your Marketing professors don’t know jack about Economics.
Four square window models: By the third month of an MBA course there is a general groan when yet another professor presents yet another model represented by one square divided into four. Let’s face it; windows belong in Jackanory (“today’s story is through the square window”). Many of the theories I learnt to regurgitate simply did not hold water against my experience in business. Of those that did, they only did so some of the time, which is “non-optimal”.
Post rationalisation: Any professor that starts by describing his subject as “like trying to drive a car by looking through the rear view mirror” needs to accept that he is either making up stuff to explain what has already happened, or driving the car backwards.
Interesting questions: Being told that a question is “interesting” without being offered a “solution” drives MBA students up the wall. I was driven so far up the wall by my strategy professor who repeatedly did this that in the end of year skits I played video clips of him being evasive into a Star Trek send-up that cast him as a Klingon Commander, and then blew him up to huge cheers from the students.
GMAT: If research by Judge and Cable[ii] is to be believed (that 3.9% of the American male population is six feet two (188cm) or over, yet nearly a third of CEOs in Fortune 500 companies are that height or taller) then selecting MBA students by height rather than GMAT scores would be a more practical way of ensuring their long term success.
It’s not sufficient just to burst bubbles without proposing something to put in their place. I believe the most useful skills that could be taught are in thinking and interacting. Learning to challenge the accepted thinking, “the way we do things around here”, the organisational norms. Teach students to think about your product or service in the widest possible way, rather than in the narrowest possible silo. Having figured out how to mess up everyones jobs, MBA graduates are then going to need incredible skills in interpersonal relationships, in negotiating the changes that need to happen and in engaging with the market (this is called sales). Finally teach them to adapt quickly so that when the theories flop, they can flip to another strategy.
Free laptop? Nah, free elevator shoes all round!
[i] David Silverman, “Surviving the Buss from Hell”, Harvard Business Review, September 2009, p33
[ii] Timothy A. Judge and Daniel M. Cable, “The Effect of Physical Height on Workplace Success and Income: Preliminary Test of a Theoretical Model”, Journal of Applied Psychology 89, no 3, June 2004, pp428-441