The global financial crisis of 2007-08 had an unlikely fallout—the University of Oxford started teaching its MBA students Shakespeare.
Titled ‘Engaging with the Humanities’, this elective curriculum encompassing literature, art and history was born from a simple question that the Saïd Business School at Oxford asked itself: are we training our management students in a way that they have a full understanding of what the human condition is about?
Unbridled growth, followed by the devastating crash, had exposed an unfortunate truth—that many of the great number-crunchers of our times were failing as leaders. The world and its corporations needed managers not just well-versed in graphs, charts and strategy but in collective human history and individual human compassion.
As we enter a new decade, business education once again finds itself playing catch-up to a changing world. Yet—despite the pandemic-fuelled uncertainties—89% of recruiters say they would continue to hire MBA graduates in 2021, valuing their ‘strategic thinking, communication skills and versatility’. To be able to live up to industry expectations, and create leaders who have been prepared for this new professional world, I feel business education needs to focus on three broad areas.
Digital technology is transforming the entire gamut of human experience at a breathless pace, requiring businesses to adapt equally fast. Products and services are being increasingly consumed online, and we need managers with the ability to deal with disruption.
At the same time, the operating models of a business are also changing. Decision-making is now dependent not just on human knowledge and instinct but data science. Technology is being leveraged to collect massive volumes of data, which is then being analysed and interpreted to give shape to business strategies. Data science is evolving into artificial intelligence and machine learning, where arguably many decisions are going to be taken automatically in the near future.
How do we prepare managers to take advantage of these technological transformations?
Firstly, managers need to understand how technology is driving businesses both internally and externally. So, you need to know some tech, even if you are “non-techie”. MBA students, even if they come from a Humanities background, cannot afford not to understand technology any longer.
Secondly, business leaders need to be taught how to make sense of huge volumes of data and how to use that knowledge intelligently; we need management programmes that provide a deeper understanding of analytics, machine learning and artificial intelligence.
Thirdly, to make sense of this rapidly changing world, we need leaders who are also constantly evolving — discovering, learning how to learn, trying out new things, being open to failure and recalibrating quickly based on their learnings. Because there are no past patterns to fall back on. The only way to know, the only way to learn is to try new things, be comfortable with failure, and return to the drawing board often. This is, what I call, nurturing an entrepreneurial spirit.
Often, we think of entrepreneurship as launching a start-up. The time has come for the definition of “entrepreneur” to be expanded. Every manager has to become an entrepreneur in so much as to become a risk-taker, a fast-mover and a constant learner.
Fourthly, any business degree can no longer be just about management studies. Unfortunately, the MBA has become a standardised cookie-cutter degree delivered in the same way. There is an urgent need to expand the scope of management curricula and take an interdisciplinary approach to create multifaceted leaders. Businesses do not operate in a vacuum; what is happening in politics, how societies are evolving, the lessons history holds, policymaking and regulations, the urgency of climate change — all these impact businesses. Leaders of tomorrow have to learn to appreciate this from Day 1. Thus, a foundation in the liberal arts becomes as critical for MBA students as an understanding of data science.
Soft skills make hard sense
To thrive in this business landscape marked by disruption, managers will need much more than technical and functional skills. Sooner or later, you are going to run out of your expertise, because something is going to change so much that you are going to have to start afresh. You will have to relearn, retry, redo.
But what will be even more critical is your ability to take decisions, to hone your judgement. How good are you at analytical thinking in the middle of complexities, at solving problems, at communicating, at putting together diverse teams straddling cultures and geographies, or at working collaboratively with different stakeholders will determine your success as a leader.
If 2020 has one big lesson for businesses, it is that disruptions will continue to happen. How do we deal with this constant change? Not just by learning new skills or being risk-takers but by creating managers who are more resilient and agile.
Therefore, developing these cognitive, behavioural and social skills have to become not add-ons but central to MBA programmes. Business schools will have to foster these leadership skills—what are unfortunately often clubbed as “soft skills”. In the new world, these soft skills make hard sense.
The world as we know it is likely to change in the next ten years, may be even five. But if we are able to equip our future managers with functional skills to negotiate this ever-changing world, regardless of the nature of that change, then we will be creating a foundation on which businesses can pivot and thrive.
The real world
Any professional degree, which is what an MBA is, has to be rooted not just in these foundational skills but also in real, practical experience. We need managers equipped to lead as soon as they enter the workforce, which can only happen if MBA students are provided with avenues for practical application of their classroom knowledge. There is no substitute for real-world work experience that goes far beyond the ubiquitous summer internship.
MBA courses need to, thus, give equal weightage to experiential learning as academic learning. This exposure will allow students to not just understand academic concepts but also apply them as they are studying them—not wait for later—so that their learning is deeper.
Several engineering programmes around the world offer this “co-opt” model of teaching, where two semesters out of eight are spent working for a company, for academic credit. It is time MBA institutions adopted this project-based learning method to create well-rounded managers who are ready to hit the ground running.
These are the three ways in which I feel business education needs to step up. The problem, however, remains that education everywhere suffers an inherent lag. Curricula, faculty and mindsets change at a slower pace than industry needs. Now, with technology as the driver of change, the pace is even faster, and the gap is growing wider.
While existing institutions offering professional degrees will have to adapt as best as they can, herein lies a huge opportunity for those who are building something new. They are in a unique position to create a programme from scratch that is more in tune with the needs of the times. India and the world need such business programmes and we need them right here, right now.
Views are personal. The author is founder of Harappa Education, he was the founding dean of ISB, and is the founder and trustee of Ashoka University.