30 Jan 2019 21:22 IST

Business education must chart a new course

Soft-skills, practice courses and a concern for social issues will dominate the new age curriculum

For some time now, the World Economic Forum has been examining the skills required by the workforce of the fourth industrial revolution. In its Future of Jobs Report, it has identified the following ten skill areas as being of paramount importance by 2020: Complex problem-solving; critical thinking; creativity; people management; Coordinating with others; emotional intelligence; judgment and decision-making; service orientation; negotiation; and cognitive flexibility.

Several global business leaders of Indian origin possess such 21st century skills. Some of them are Indra Nooyi, Satya Nadella, Sundar Pichai, Anshu Jain and Puneet Renjen (CEO of Deloitte). In the business management arena, we are among the best of the best.

Managers’ expectations

The National Human Resource Development Network (NHRDN) recently concluded a nation-wide survey of senior managers and academicians. Its objective was to ascertain whether the WEF findings apply wholly or in part to the Indian context. The pie chart shows the composition of senior managers and academicians surveyed.

 

The NHRDN Survey showed that Indian managers have the same expectations on competence as revealed in the WEF’s Future of Jobs report.

The survey was conducted by the NHRDN, while the data analysis was done by the second author of this piece. The NHRDN, with its pan-India reach, was well-positioned to elicit the opinions of senior management and academicians across the length and breadth of the country.

The survey can be the starting point of any curriculum design effort that will make MBA students ready for an ever-changing corporate world. The findings do call for a re-thinking of business education curricula.

Key Finding 1: In MBA programmes, the practice courses should be as important as academic curriculum

The survey underscores the importance of practice courses which, it says, need to be stressed as much as the academic components. Practice courses require mentors who enable self-learning and self-direction. In such learning programmes, the teacher-mentor is responsible for nurturing a small group of 10-15 students. The teacher learns with the students. She comes to know the students as individuals.

The ‘man-on-mountain’ or ‘conductor of symphony’ approach favoured by proponents of the case method, such as Roland Christensen of the Harvard Business School, has become somewhat 20th century. The outcomes of a case discussion are expected, known and thought out in advance. The discussions are conducted within the comfort zone of a classroom. By contrast, the outcomes of practice courses cannot be predicted, as each small group project is unique. The problem that requires a solution must be unearthed in the field, while formulating a solution requires prototyping and experimentation.

This is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Practice courses are, after all, meant to supplement academic courses, not replace them. And they are here to stay as part of any curriculum that seeks to cater to industrial revolution 4.0.

Learnings imbibed through practice courses cannot be learnt any other way. A prospective manager learns to manage by managing. Every time (s)he executes a project (s)he becomes better at his/her craft, and his/her managerial skills improve. The practice builds confidence, which then acts as a spur to further success.

The survey threw up five skill-sets required by prospective managers, as shown in the Chart.

 

Key Finding 2: MBA programmes should foster cognitive flexibility

Cognitive flexibility was identified as a vital skill for industrial revolution 4.0 by the WEF reports. The NHRDN report reveals that it is significant for India as well. Why is this so?

Domain knowledge is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for surviving a VUCA world. Here, cognitive flexibility becomes of the essence. JP Guildford, doyen of scholarship on cognitive flexibility, has described it as a combination of convergent thinking and divergent thinking. (Convergent thinking is the use of logic; divergent thinking is the use of creativity.).

This description sums up the main thrust of the NHRDN survey: Academic training has to be bolstered by practice-based learning; the ability to apply knowledge needs to be coupled with the gift for imagination; and the flexibility to adapt to the changing business world should go hand-in-hand with the desire to improve it.

A flexible mind will never be flummoxed by a problem. If solution ABC will not work, it will think of solution XYZ. If solution XYZ will not work, it will opt for 123. Thus, cognitive flexibility stimulates problem-solving capabilities.

Another vital skill identified by the survey is negotiation. Successful negotiation is about both parties ‘getting to yes’ as experts Roger Fisher and William Ury have been telling us for over 35 years. But what is different today is that it is not just about making offers the other party cannot refuse, as the Corleone family used to say in The Godfather. It is also about creating win-win situations by using emotional intelligence.

What the survey has revealed is that while traditional management concepts and techniques currently taught in most business schools are necessary, they are not sufficient for managerial success. The 20th century way of educating management students worked in that century. Unless business schools following the 20th century model re-invent themselves, they will be left behind on the path to cutting-edge success.

 

The curriculum components Graph shows that attitude and skills are more important than knowledge. This has obvious implications for the design of business education. The individualistic / competitive orientation emphasised by Ivy League business schools in the 20th century is now an anachronism. Business places are increasingly dominated by collaborative work.

Key Finding 3: MBA programmes should have internships of at least 3-6 months

Established management institutes have traditionally focused on making students go through two years of course work. Courses in the second year may require students to do a live project. But the pedagogy primarily emphasises the case method. While this may hone analytical skills, it is no substitute for learning through doing. The NHRDN survey indicates the need for entire courses based on experiential learning.

As can be seen in the curriculum Graph, the respondents say that the internship students undertake with business organisations should be for three to six months. This flies in the face of traditional internship periods, which are typically two months long. This internship is sandwiched between the first and second years of course work.

There is, however, no substitute for being a management practitioner even while learning the theory of management. Internships should be longer. Even two internships can be embedded in an MBA programme, allowing students to learn about more than one managerial context. The longer duration internship should be at the end of the MBA programme, and serve as a capstone.

The inference is clear: When business education is imparted, the development of hard-skills needs to be combined with imparting soft-skills; academic sessions need to be balanced with an equal number of practice courses; and a profit-making orientation must be tempered with a concern for social issues.

The authors are Professors at IFIM Business School, Bengaluru.

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