Building a Potent Knowledge Area in a B-School

Most business schools organise themselves into a Matrix-like, cross-tabbed structure of the functional-knowledge domains and Programmes-offered. Programmes-offered are the specific customer-solutions offered by the institution which would draw upon the expertise of different functional-knowledge domains as per the programme-recipe. Functional-knowledge domains are aggregates of academics into clusters of common knowledge and expertise.

Functional-knowledge domains offer building blocks for Programmes-offered in the form of courses or modules. Programmes-Managers pick and sequence these courses or modules from different functional-knowledge domains, as per the design of individual programmes to construct the complete programme.

Functional-knowledge domain members create more universal usage modules and courses for staff-interchange ability to deliver the modules besides expert modules around individual capabilities and custom-module requirements for different programmes. The universal designed courses are usually called as core-courses while the expert-modules have different names like – elective courses, choice courses or programme-mandatory courses.

The job of leading an area (functional domain department) can differ greatly from one institute to the next and even from one area to the next within the same institute.

Usually area-chairs are merely first among equals — meaning they continue to teach but may be granted some release time from classroom obligations to handle scheduling and other administrative tasks. Some chairs play a major role in hiring and evaluating faculty, while others do little more than manage the paperwork.

During years of working at different b-schools in India and abroad, I have identified these five as the most universal and the most important of a chair’s responsibilities.

Advocate For the Area’s Faculty:

In my experience, the most effective area leaders see themselves as faculty first and administrators second. Their primary role, as they see it, is to be advocate for their area — for its courses and especially for its faculty-members.

Of course, faculty members are not always right, and the area’s needs don’t always supersede those of other areas or the institute as a whole. A chair who is not seen, first and foremost, as the area’s advocate with higher-ups will likely have a confused and perhaps difficult period in office.

Representative of the Administration:

It sounds contradictory but the fact remains that Area-chairs are administrators, even if they occupy the lowest tier. There will be times when you have to present some policy or decision to the faculty, on behalf of the administration, knowing it will not be well-received or when you are not thrilled with the latest diktat either.

I think its fine for a chair to say, in essence: “Look, I don’t agree with this either, but I don’t have any more say about it than you do. We’ll just have to make the best of a bad situation.” That sort of honesty generally earns the respect of the faculty who will appreciate knowing you are on their side, even if you are similarly powerless. At least you’re powerless together.

Orchestra Conductor for Harmony:

As chair, you will have very little control over whether your institution as a whole embraces shared governance. But typically, you will have a great deal of influence within your own sphere. You can employ the principles of shared governance within your area, regardless of what anyone else at the institution is doing.

It means making sure the committee structure within the area exists not just to perform the necessary “house-keeping work,” like selecting textbooks and making adjustments to the curriculum, but also to serve as a vehicle for everyone who has a stake having a seat (or at least a representative) at the table. And it means seeking consensus of the area on any decision that will affect the entire area.

Provider of a Safety Vent:

One of your most important roles as chair is to create a “safe place” where faculty members who feel that their voice is not being heard can speak out freely. That certainly includes adjuncts and other contingent faculty, who may feel that the only place they can be heard is at the area level.

That forum might take the form of an area-meeting. When I was a chair, I didn’t like purposeless meetings (I still don’t). I quickly learned, however, that just because I didn’t think certain topics were important didn’t mean others in the area had the same perception. And if just listening is the best you can do — well, at least faculty members will feel like they’re being heard by someone, and that’s often better than nothing.

Embankment to Check Digression from the Vision:

Over the years I’ve been amazed to observe that — no matter how independent-minded individual area members might be — the area as a whole either lacks a vision or tends to take its cue from the chair. A chair who is generally positive fosters optimism among faculty, whereas one who is negative generates pessimism.

It is not necessary to have an area mission statement, but questions like the following should be considered by the group:

  • What are our core beliefs and values?
  • What are our most important functions?
  • What do we want this area to be known for?
  • How do we accomplish that?
  • What are our professional standards and expectations?
  • How do we fit into, and complement, the larger institution?

Many have observed that the area chair’s job is probably the hardest in all of higher education, caught perpetually between administration and faculty, neither fully one nor fully the other. I’ve certainly experienced that in my career. But it is also the most personally rewarding job I’ve ever held, in that I felt I had the opportunity to make a positive difference in people’s lives, both faculty members and students, every single day.

Despite its inherent difficulties, the job becomes more manageable once you understand why, mundane tasks aside, you’re there. And that is, ultimately, to serve faculty, students, and the institution — in that order.


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To ensure the quality of the discussion, comments may be edited for clarity, length, and relevance. Comments that are overly promotional, mean-spirited, or off-topic may be deleted.

Published by

Mukul Gupta

*Educator, researcher, author and a friendly contrarian* Professor@MDIGurgaon

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