MAKING MANAGEMENT TEACHING REAL: Weaving practice into precept

13th May 2008, ECONOMIC TIMES

On a cold January morning in Boston, I discussed conflict and transformation management with a leading professor. As he made room for me in his car, he apologized for the mess by saying, “I am going through a divorce and it was my turn to drop my daughter at school.” It was unfortunate for the person and odd as a circumstance.

13th May 2008, ECONOMIC TIMES

On a cold January morning in Boston, I discussed conflict and transformation management with a leading professor. As he made room for me in his car, he apologized for the mess by saying, “I am going through a divorce and it was my turn to drop my daughter at school.” It was unfortunate for the person and odd as a circumstance.

Is this a stray incident? My dialogues with several professionals suggest that many reported similar experiences. Life is full of paradoxes such as these. In this article, I address a paradox concerning management teaching: I think the issues are live and real, they call for some action.

I serve on the Boards of some management teaching institutions. One Director referred to a difficult faculty colleague, “You know Prof X is a teacher of behavioral science. He cannot get along with any of the other faculty members.” After the Director finished his points, I requested him to expand on this oxymoron statement. He could not quite explain it, though he was quite certain that he had considered the phenomenon to be prevalent in several institutions.

With another Director, I explored the possibility of increasing faculty contact with industry by expanding consultancy work. In a moment of truth-telling and candor, the Director blurted out, “Let us get real now. The faculty is good at teaching management, but we have absolutely no experience of doing things or managing in real-life. Why should any industry person consult with us? You know how we struggle to manage our own institute.”

The market for business education is booming all over the world. India is on top of the global league tables in the production of MBAs, about 100,000 per annum. The quality of the best graduates compares with the best in the world. The average graduate quality is hugely variable and inconsistent. Our education system needs to consider appropriate actions.

There are many dimensions to the solution. One dimension is the urgent need for practice and precept to come together: staffing of teachers at institutes should have more of teachers who have practiced and practitioners who can teach. There will, of course, be some who can only teach and cannot practice. If they are uniquely talented (and there are such people), then the staffing should include a few of them.

There are challenges in implementing such an approach. A passionate academic could spend a decade working on his doctorate and winning his tenure. He will have difficulties if he is required to adjust to a corporate environment. We must recognize this. That is why the solution lies in building a faculty with a mix of skills in research, teaching and practice.

Unlike mathematics and science, where there is a significant role for theoretical work, management is an applied subject—it is more like a performing art or sport rather than a subject rich with rationality, truisms and edagogy. Economics and social studies form a key plank of the basic framework on which managers learn and teachers teach. Would you learn surgery from a doctor who has learnt only from books? Or take tennis coaching classes from a person who cannot play? That is why students of management must have access to academic discipline as well as practical training.

Merely because there is a rush for management education, we should not think that our institutes are delivering a great education; if we do, then we will fail to build for the future. So is it that the management institutes are ‘getting away’ with it? One can view the issue from the perspective of the students, the industry and the faculty.

Students and parents do not ask such questions because admission is very prized and only the lucky get in. The outstanding quality of the student intake into the top institutes produces managers who perform well later. Regrettably the industry is indifferent and does not engage much with the institutes. Somewhat unfairly, academics are thought to be theoretical and insular. Anyway the companies train the students for their own organization.

I am guilty of a sweeping generalization, but a few exceptions apart, I wonder whether our faculty is an inadvertent enemy of improvement in management education. I have felt that Indian management faculty is not greatly interested in building networks with alumni or companies. They are often unwilling to be accountable for their research output. The absence of a ‘market’ in management education has created the mindset that the Indian manager suffered from before1990.

It is quite urgent that the real world be brought into the classroom. Management teachers should enjoy conversations with practitioners and should reach out to industry; practicing managers should interact much more with business schools.

Companies can also help. They should select promising of management teachers for limited periods to work in their departments as faculty-in-residence. Students should demand a more practical orientation in their faculty. Above all, the All India Council of Technical Education (AICTE) should recognize that it is desirable to have a better balance between PhD/academic attainment and practical experience—both these are important, not merely the former. Institutes with such a balance should get a better score during accreditation. Let us recall that the IIMs were all started by practicing managers like Ravi Mathai, KS Basu and KT Chandy.

Management teachers abroad have realized this. Such thoughts influenced well-established teachers to write passionately about reforming management education: like Henry Mintzberg (Managers Not MBAs) and Rakesh Khurana (From Higher Aims to Hired Hands). Such ideas cause India’s management alumni to write articles like “What they do not teach you at B-School.”

There is no dearth of reports on what ails management teaching and what requires fixing: right now, another Committee (RC Bhargava) has been commissioned “to look into the matter.” Our national vision of growth and spread of prosperity must become a reality. Indian managers have a great role to play and so too, Indian management teachers. There is yet time for corrective action.

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