Weekly Roundup – 5/19/13: A ‘fork in the road’ for B-Schools
“Business schools now face the same fork in the road as the protagonists in the cases taught by teaching staff: to choose incremental improvements to what they are doing or to transition to something different. There is often merit in doing familiar things better, but there are dilemmas, too. The schools with the best reputation attract the best students and recruiters. They attract the teachers most visible as ‘public intellectuals’ and the largest endowments to support student aid. These schools have the least incentive to change course – at least for now.”
That was Rakesh Khurana, the Marvin Bower Professor of Leadership Development at Harvard Business School; and J.C. Spender, a visiting professor at Esade (Ramon Llull University), in their recent article What skills do MBA students really need? They answer their question, in part, by drawing attention to what business schools aren’t providing to their students, AKA: future managers.
“Managers need training in judgment because the facts necessary for purely rigorous decision-making are seldom available. But managerial judgment – resolving business uncertainties and embracing ethical and social responsibility for actions that affect others – plays almost no part in the narrative that underpins schools’ account of managing. Analysis has been prioritized at the expense of judgment.”
I read their essay a few weeks ago and promptly shelved it in the back of my head. It would have continued to collect mental dust and cobwebs if not for Stu Hart’s strong critique of the MBA as taught by many a business school, which we cross-posted on NB Friday. Hart writes:
“For most business school students, the MBA program experience has become synonymous with the first year core courses – a rite-of-passage not unlike military indoctrination. By the time MBA students complete the core, they are so preoccupied with job search to repay the massive debt they have accumulated, that there is little time for elective courses that might broaden their bandwidth or allow for critical self-reflection.
“The time has come to put the horse back in front of the cart. We desperately need new models of business education and entrepreneurial development appropriate to the challenges we face in the 21st century, which include epidemic inequality, ecosystem degradation, and a looming climate crisis.”
I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that Hart throws down the gauntlet on the state of higher business education in the United States. And it’s tough not to take his critique seriously. After all, Hart has been on the faculty of Cornell University, the University of Michigan and the University of North Carolina business schools, and is one of the pioneers in base of the pyramid theory and practice. In other words, he’s been one of the key people driving this change in business education, and clearly isn’t satisfied by its progress..
At the same time, education in social business has never been more in demand by students and there’s never been more to accommodate them. As Ashoka leader Bill Drayton told Smithsonian Magazine: “If you go to Harvard Business School you will now find more people in the social enterprise group than in the marketing or finance group, which is wildly different from even ten years ago or five years ago. That’s very satisfying. We are at a different stage.”
Meanwhile, Jeff Walker, previously an Entrepreneur in Residence at the Harvard Business School (HBS) focused on Social Enterprise and a lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, praises the generational nexus between the millennial students interested in social business and the Baby Boomers who have climbed the corporate ladder and now to want to give back, a nexus that is forming at business schools.
“B-school students and recent graduates are eager to connect with experienced business people and work collaboratively on the big social issues of the day, from poverty and health care to education and the environment…
“Students at many universities involved in social change initiatives are being mentored by experienced executives. Programs like these are active at Duke, Stanford, Virginia, and elsewhere, and the University of Utah just received a $15 million gift to launch a social entrepreneurship initiative with a similar mentoring component.”
A couple weeks back, I moderated a Google+ Hangout with the winning teams (university professors and students) of the NextBillion Case Writing Competition. One of the key discussion points was how to infuse social innovation into the business core curriculum. I added the video below and our discussion of higher education begins around the 38-minute mark. But one takeaway for me was from R. Ryan Nelson, professor of commerce information technology at the University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce, who co-wrote the winning case “BTPN: Banking for the Bottom of the Pyramid in Indonesia,” about the expansion of microfinance-heavy bank. Ryan said after several years of offering a class specifically focused on social business at the school, about half of the students got into it, the other half were very resistant. Many expressed the view that: “‘I’m here to be trained to go to Wall Street and that’s all I want to know. I’m really not interested in hearing about social business initiatives of companies, even Fortune 500 companies,’” Ryan said.
So the school has done much more to integrate the subject matter, much like they’ve done with ethics in courses involving finance and accounting practices. Ryan’s case, for instance, is taught in a strategy and systems course, which all incoming third year business students take.
Many business schools have maintained social entrepreneurship education in the same way that corporations cordon off corporate social responsibility initiatives. That is, the CSR projects are highlighted in glossy brochures or annual reports, but are rarely integrated into the core of the company’s operations. Infusing social business knowledge into the standard courses within curriculum, is just one way to potentially break the pattern that Hart and others lament. But, as with any other business proposition, supply and demand (from students and the businesses that will one day employ them) will dictate the pace of that evolution.