Friday, May 15, 2009

Harvard wants to fix business education

In the wake of the numerous financial scandals that have beset the United States -- and Wall Street, in particular (as well as the world as large) -- the heads of Harvard and other business schools have been scrambling into damage control mode as well attempting to engage in a process of genuine introspection. Business schools have a lot at stake. Prominent among those being held responsible for the meltdown are graduates of elite business schools such as Harvard and there is a danger of public anger being directed at these schools for having ostensibly nurtured criminal tendencies among its students. While financial scandals are an ongoing sideshow in all nations and economies, this is the first time that such scandals have been explicitly linked to significant personal financial losses experienced by millions of ordinary people. If financial and other improprieties become permanently associated with very well-endowed institutions, then many powerful individuals in high places may have the reputations (unfairly) smeared and the institutions might begin to go downhill as a result.

Actually, there is a lot more at state than merely the fate of a few mighty institutions. An entire paradigm 0f education on which entire economies have been nurtured for over half a century is being questioned: Are we on the right track? Do we need to reboot? Should we scrap much of what we have taught all these decades and start from scratch?

It's unlikely, though, that graduate business education will be dramatically transformed in the short run. First, it's tough to turn a big ship going at full-tilt. Further, many fundamental concepts taught at business schools are based on solid evidence and impervious to scandal. More importantly, the current scandal is largely focused on ethics -- or a lack, thereof -- as practiced by captains of industry. But unethical behavior is only the tip of the iceberg. Perhaps unethical behavior was just one downstream link in chain of behaviors whose source was actions founded on flawed business principles. People sometimes do unethical things in order to compensate for failures that were the result of bad business decisions which founded on defective business principles. Perhaps the world has changed very significantly since the time the business ideas were first enunciated and tested and they are no longer applicable. The world of human beings, after all, is far more fluid than the inanimate universe that surrounds us, and is governed by laws that are much more complex and plastic.

Roger Martin, Dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto seems to be making a similar point. He says the typical MBA education is shallow, narrow and static, where it should be deep, broad and dynamic. He elaborates, stating that MBA students should not only acquire models and principles, but their underlying logic so that they can tear them apart to inspect them or to construct their own from scratch; they ought to appreciate that the world is a complex, messy place where business cannot be run merely on the back of rational-actor economics; and that innovation and design are key to moulding MBA graduates capable of dealing with change and variety. Martin does have an agenda here: the MBA program he runs at Rotman's differentiates itself from the rest on those very principles he presents as essential. Clearly, though, he believes that those ideas are significant enough that they can form the cornerstone of a whole new approach to business education. To be sure, the Rotman MBA is not radically different in every way from the Standard Model, if you well, developed by Harvard and imitated by thousands of others around the world. Martin himself was a Harvard MBA and the fruit is unlikely to travel too far from the might tree that is Harvard Business School. It is difficult both radically change an MBA program and gain credibility for a different paradigm in competitive market where the current way is well-entrenched.

But perhaps, this presents an opportunity for a disruptive model to emerge that initially does not serve the mainstream (or threaten the market leaders such a Harvard, Sloan and Northwestern) but eventually attains a strong enough position to threaten to topple the status quo.

We live in exciting times.

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