New Manager

‘Our role as educators is in question'

Chandu Nair | Updated on December 04, 2011

Dr Srikant Datar

Chandu Nair

Even as enrolment to business programmes in the US has dropped sharply, B-schools should take a proactive approach to the problem, says Srikant Datar

Dr Srikant Datar is Arthur Lowes Dickinson Professor of Business Administration and Senior Associate and Director of Research at Harvard Business School. The gold medalist from IIM (A) is quizzed by fellow IIM post-grad, Chandu Nair, for The New Manager. Rethinking the MBA: Business Education at a Crossroads, co-authored by Datar with David A Garvin and research associate Patrick G Cullen, sets the tone for the conversation. Excerpts:

Why are B-schools at the crossroads? Have the old drivers (namely great placements, promotions, higher social prestige, corporate acceptance) disappeared or changed? Is it true only in countries such as the US or even elsewhere? For example, developing nations like India?

In the US, there has been a steep decline in enrolments — it is down by 25-50 per cent in many B-schools, especially in the full-time programme, there is a steeper fall! The key reason — a decline in the value added by an MBA degree. The opportunity cost is high as is the cost of doing the MBA while the returns are not commensurate. Plus, student engagement is dropping.

Our view in the book is that even if enrolments had not decreased, our role as educators is in question. Are we doing the best job, are we giving the best skills to equip the students? We shouldn't be reactive, we need to be proactive now.

A comment you make — the students who come for full-time MBAs today are not as engaged with the academic curriculum. Why is that?

This is a hypothesis only. It is a multi-dimensional complex problem. Students primarily seem to want to get credentials and build networks and connections. Narrowly, as an educator, our question is — can we do something to increase engagement? Have we taken this great talent and focused on building knowledge and character with competencies? How do we (as managers) develop empathy if we don't know what lives the people we lead are living? We are very far on this dimension.

Think about what Gandhiji did — he had to understand what appealed to the masses, and lived among them. (Note: Datar is a self-confessed Gandhi acolyte.)

We make all sorts of assumptions and repeat our often ineffectual responses!

Similarly, for the last 50 years, why did B-schools emphasise analytics, models, and statistics to the detriment of softer disciplines? Is it because their key recruiters were from say the financial services, consulting, businesses which valued such skills and traits (analytical, logical, clear-cut, right or wrong binary thinking)?

The top 14-15 B-schools in the US are by and large insulated from the decline. We looked at the placement data — 70-80 per cent are going to financial services and consulting, all advisory kinds of positions. These recruiters won't go beyond these top schools. The boom in the financial services industry has helped these top schools.

We quote from the NBER (The National Bureau of Economic Research) study in our book. They track salaries of different professions over time. In the 1920s, the financial services industry salaries were way out of line. In 1995 again, they were out of whack compared to the other professions. This is not true of other professions, say, medicine. The top 15-20 B-schools (in the US) need not change their profile or placement focus; however, the others have to and can't really afford to imitate them.

Why do you think a large set of unmet needs in areas such as leadership development, skill at critical, creative, and integrative thinking, and understanding organisational realities, have not been tackled for so long?

The rest of the B-schools first tried to imitate the top B-schools, but that does not work. Even if you understand needs, developing a curriculum to meet those needs is very tough. The trouble is that for education, there are no good market signals or data to let you know there's a problem. The reaction time is slow too. Our book examines those who did a good job. We went out of the business school ambit and looked at things such as leadership — Center for Creative Leadership — or design — the School of Design.

Isn't the Indian context for management education very different? What are the key gaps in schools in India? What can schools here in India do to close the gap?

The context here in India is quite different. We have to be innovative in our solutions. Distance learning technologies can help with respect to the issue of faculty shortage and also in enhancing the quality of education imparted. We must get away from the premise that only PhDs make good teachers. For e.g. the Great Lakes Institute of Management (GLIM, Chennai) delivers all kinds of value using other faculty — the number of PhDs is only 12! We need to extend the pool of faculty as also look at technology and alternate approaches to pedagogy.

You indicate that ‘The single strongest theme we heard in our interviews was the need for MBA students to cultivate greater self-awareness'. Isn't this in many ways a harking back to the spiritual traditions of old? Aren't we revisiting ‘plus ca change, plus c'est le meme chose'?

I have studied Gandhiji a lot. My father was a freedom fighter. I am going back to understanding Gandhiji's seven deadly sins and his thoughts on these three, especially, knowledge without character, commerce without morality and science without humanity. All three are alluded to, to create greater self-awareness among all of us. Gandhiji cut to the chase really. Self-awareness is the key. We don't give people the ability to ask and give feedback. Leaders too are faltering. Leaders get work done through others. And that makes an organisation great. Unlike a great doctor who tends to do stuff himself!

Schools also seem to have lost it where practical skills is concerned. .

We looked at our (teacher's) jobs as filling people with knowledge and they will get the ‘experience' on the job. There are three big issues on ‘doing skills' —

Understanding the gap between theory and practice and the limitations of the models that people are using

The ability to apply in practice what you have learnt in theory

The pedagogy of teaching practical /doing skills is flawed. We pooh-poohed experiential learning earlier. Second, we need innovations in pedagogies

What has been the key value proposition of B-schools so far; what will their value proposition be going forward?

I would like the mission to be — ‘People who come here are going to be entrepreneurs, managers and leaders rather than analysts and functionaries.' By doing this, a lot of unmet needs will get met more often along with doing skills and greater self-awareness.

Chandu Nair, an IIMA alumnus, is a Chennai based entrepreneur

Published on December 04, 2011

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