Do business schools need to devise a curriculum better suited to the real world?
Last year I wrote an article for the Guardian about the difficulties business schools in particular and universities in general face in keeping abreast of trends and technologies. I noted that dinosaurs are getting younger and that the HE sector as a whole too often appears strangely determined to court extinction.
At the time I had recently concluded a five-year stint as dean of Nottingham University Business School. My half-decade in the hot seat confirmed that universities everywhere still do a lot of things very well, but it also shed an uncomfortable light on the disconnect between what many students are taught and what they actually need to know.
Now returned to the comparative security of the sidelines, old office and all, I am by no means sure this gap can ever be successfully closed. I do think, though, that it can be significantly narrowed and that the key to effecting long-overdue repairs is to devise curricula that strike a far better balance between the established tenets so cherished by academia and the ceaseless change that awaits students after graduation.
Universities should not forget their role in the wider sphere of people development. We make the task of HR managers altogether more difficult if we fail to ready our students for life in the “real world”. The following arguments are offered with this issue very much in mind.
Look for a golden mean
Imagine a continuum linking academia and the realm beyond its ivory towers. Where does the typical curriculum stand? We first need to consider the “limit cases”.
At one end is an unwavering emphasis on underlying principles and an unshakable belief that nothing that happens “out there”, however monumental, could possibly uproot these sacred cornerstones. At the other is a focus solely on uncertainty and change and an admission that students will confront realities so unpredictable that any factual information or content with which we might equip them will inevitably be rendered redundant.
Neither scenario is sensible in isolation, but together they show where we are and where we need to be. In short, our most promising direction of travel is away from the first extreme and towards the second.
Learning to swim means getting wet
It is not enough simply to have knowledge of uncertainty and change. As I shall explain further in a moment, that sort of thing really cannot be taught.
Genuine preparation is best derived from experience. Students have to relive the past and share in the present if they are to develop a meaningful idea of the future.
That means immersion in practice and applications. It means involvement in “real world” decisions, including an understanding of the benefits and costs these can entail. There is no other way of remaining truly relevant.
“Know-how” always beats “know-about”
Ours is an age in which a few swipes of a tablet computer’s screen might very soon be sufficient to download the sum total of humankind’s learning. Yet all the facts on Earth are of genuine value only if we know what to do with them and what they really mean.
This is the difference between “know about” and “know-how”. Scientist and philosopher Michael Polanyi coined the term “tacit knowing”, remarking: “We know more than we can tell.” The effective transfer of tacit, experience-based skills alongside fact-based knowledge is crucial to survival and growth.
Countless skills are tacit in nature. They cannot be learned from a book or a quick blast around the internet. They have to be gained through experience. We too easily forget this in our “connected” world.
Certain university sectors are very good at championing innovation in word but not in deed. Business schools tend to underline this trait with, especially depressing regularity.
By way of illustration, consider Roger Martin’s transformational work at Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. His achievements have earned richly deserved praise, but that they are outstanding in the first place should give us cause for concern.
The unpleasant truth – one we are too often reluctant to admit – is that we have become wholly unaccustomed to the extraordinary. Such a mindset is ill-suited to institutions tasked with preparing students for environments increasingly defined by uncertainty.
There is no such thing as perfection
Any curriculum that ticks the above boxes has to incorporate a permanent state of disequilibrium. To put it less portentously: it has to be flexible. This can happen only if we accept that perfection is an unattainable goal.
Such a view, which is central to the Austrian-influenced approach to economics, could be seen – wrongly – as an admission of defeat. More optimistically, it should be regarded as a healthy acknowledgment of what is feasible and evidence of a determination to react and adapt to ceaseless shifts.
The fact is that we will never be able to prepare students for everything that the “real world” might throw at them. We can, though, aspire to a level of informed adjustment that aims to cover as many eventualities as possible.
Martin Binks is the former dean of Nottingham University Business School and a Professor of Entrepreneurial Development at its Haydn Green Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.