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October 24, 2016

Contours of Management Education

The following column by U. Mahesh Prabhu was first published by BW Businessworld 

I had the pleasure of being an external examiner for an interesting test-assignment at a local business school. The students were given the interesting task of identifying a local business of any financial scale and size, understand their strengths, assess their weaknesses and, based on this, identify their future opportunities in a way so as to diminish threats.

The trickiest part was to quickly browse through a 40-page report, ask relevant questions, and then award marks. I found that most of the students had a tough time finding the relevant financial details, particularly the balance sheet. I asked them why. They gave varied answers, but all boiled down to one point – trust. None of the businesses they worked with were willing to give them the relevant info. Students admitted that they had concerns over the relevance of the information provided to them.

I then asked them to attribute reasons to the businesses’ distrust. They were well behaved kids from decent families and were students at good business colleges. They found it difficult to respond to. In an attempt to simplify their effort, I asked them a third question, “Would you willingly tell me how much money you’ve in your wallets at the moment?” They were hesitant. While many wanted to say ‘no’, they held on to their cultural values (of not wanting to offend anyone) they didn’t respond. When I impressed upon them to give a frank answer, they admitted their unwillingness to answer the question. Improvising on my efforts, I then put my wallet on the table and asked them to go through it. They were perplexed. While some, driven by sheer inquisitiveness, went through the wallet, others resisted. I asked a fifth question, “Can you tell me why you didn’t tell me how much money you have in your wallets, but I had no problem disclosing mine?”

It didn’t take long for the bright minds to provide the right answer – trust. Trust is a very significant factor, not just in business organisations but in personal setups as well. We often undermine the importance of trust.

Ask yourself this question: how important is trust? What have you done to make people trust you?

This is the fundamental question people don’t seem to be asking. Strangely, our academic systems are busy making students working ants, who are good enough to take orders and execute them, at best. There’s no scope for analytics, introspection or meditation. The anxiety the modern B-schools carry to find 100% placement has brought so much strain onto the system that they are unconsciously killing students’ personal traits.

Director of this B-school, was right when he told me “…the lacunae between organisations and academic institutions are broadening so profusely that it’s almost as if they’ve lost the bus.”

One of the key reasons for this, in my opinion, is the kind of people these business schools are hard pressed to employ as faculty. A great many have negligible to no managerial experience. A good number are in academia because they are simply unable to find jobs in corporate houses. Worse, there are even those who were shunted out due to incompetence. Many of the members of various faculties that I have interacted across various business institutes displayed hapless interpersonal skills. Their bloated egos are so profuse that many students can procure good scores mainly by bootlicking them. Given that there are such people in the system, it’s obvious that even a student with reliable life skills can end up being a mediocre candidate for business organizations to consider.

So, what’s the solution? It’s virtually impossible to shunt incompetent faculty from B-schools. Competent people will never work for remuneration that B-schools provide. What’s needed is industry-academia interaction on a pragmatic scale. At this B-school I had been to, I saw a lot of students who have come from families with strong moral and social values. They had a great sense of loyalty. Organisations can give them a fair chance to hone their skills and outperform, but none can instil morality in them.

If these kids can be tapped from business schools at the right moment, there stands a greater opportunity not just for academia and organisations, but for students as well. The onus to make this happen should be on academia rather than organisations since the latter are all about profitability and handling competition. Unless this is realised, I strongly feel that management schools and their degrees –MBA, MBM, PGDBM – are going to be obsolete.

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