Beneath the Mask of a B-School

The majority of students in MBAs and similar degrees come to university or institutions, with no particular interest in their programmes and no sense of how these might prepare them for future careers. Their sole motive seems often to improve a CV and get a better-paid job. The choice of a university or institutions is based on its “reputation” which is measured through campus placement records and compensation packages.

Many students spend modest time studying. The average time spent on what is supposed to be full-time higher education has been observed to be as low as 14 to 15 hours per week. This is in addition to spending, on average, 14-15 hours per week in class. Balance of their discretionary-time is spent on socialising with friends, using computers for fun, watching television, exercising, and in pursuing hobbies.

When one asks these students in informal settings why they had chosen to do an MBA, usually there are only two responses: either “to earn as much money as possible” or “don’t know but everyone is doing an MBA”. These two answers seem to illustrate two major problems for contemporary business students more broadly.

One is an instrumental and opportunistic attitude to higher education among many while the other is that many students are drifting through higher education without a clear sense of purpose.

Business-education in particular has become increasingly market oriented. The idea that students are to be regarded as a customer, even in supposedly strictly non-commercial contexts, is becoming increasingly common. This has resulted in a high level of expectations and at the same time has probably contributed to the erosion of work and study morality. There are other pieces to this puzzle as well, including shortages of funding, students working part-time, research-focused academics viewing teaching as something to minimise, large and anonymous factory-like institutions, and expensive accreditation leading to managerialism, standardisation and much “box ticking”.

In a consumer culture, market fundamentalists sometimes believe that consumer satisfaction drives quality but this may lead to a less demanding workload, fairly easy course content, entertainment in class and generous grading plus the allocation of resources by universities and institutions to non-educational arrangements (sports, counselling, career advice and so on). At many places more resources go into “Placement and student service” and administration than teaching.

Business education’s claim to be a competence-raising institution can, like many other things, must be understood as partly illusionary. The expanded business-education sector can be seen as an arrangement of doubtful substance but high on symbolic and signal value. It is a legitimising structure that gives some credibility to the knowledge society’s claims and protects such claims from careful scrutiny.


 

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Conversion of B-schools into Businesses

Business Schools were set up in late 19th century as vocational trade schools. The studies of the Ford Foundation and Carnegie foundation had provided 64% of all grants to US universities both for new initiatives and for existing institutions and thus their money has had tremendous influence over the direction of education.

After the Second World War, both the Carnegie and Ford Foundations felt that business schools needed to professionalise and grow beyond their origins. Importantly, in the midst of the Cold War poor-quality business education was seen to threaten the health of the economy, democracy and the American way of life. The studies of the Ford Foundation and Carnegie foundation of 1959 led to their transformation from practical institutions into academic behemoths.

Schools were to professionalise, with faculty holding doctorates and producing graduate-level academic publications; students were to be taught quantitative methods and behavioural sciences – and only those academically qualified were to be admitted. Business schools all over the world started reinventing themselves to comply with such new expectations and the strings attached by the donors. And, while not obviously stated but clearly understood, schools were to have an anticommunist, pro-business and clearly capitalist orientation. This is the b-school model that India emulated.

The “storm” of rankings changed everything. In simple terms and for better or worse, the advent of rankings in 1987 marked the dawn of the era of business schools as businesses with the rules of the game laid down by the Foundation Studies. The U.S. News & World Report published a reputation survey of b-schools. Business Week published the first full business school assessment in 1998. Today there are other rankings provided by – Bloomberg BusinessWeek; Forbes, Financial Times, the Economist, and the Wall Street Journal.

India would not lag behind and there are now a plethora of rankings including those by Business-Today, Business India, Business World, ET, Business Standard, AIMA, MBAUniverse, Outlook, Careers360, and so on. Few people may remember what it was like before the rankings. It was a time when business schools could actually focus on improving the quality of their schools’ educational offerings. Discussions about strategic marketing were confined mostly to the marketing curriculum. PR firms were hired by businesses, not business schools. Most business schools had sufficient facilities, but few buildings had marble floors, soaring atriums, or plush carpeting. IIMs were affordable for most students, and even top MBA programs were accessible to students with high potential but low CAT/MAT scores.

What they teach and how they teach has lost focus for the leadership at b-schools. Instead, they are chasing the new indicators of quality and success for b-schools as being determined by the rankings –

  1. applicant rejection rates (how difficult is it to get admission),
  2. placements (how quickly, how early, how many aspiring recruiters, number of job offers per available student and at what emoluments),
  3. rankings (playing upon the better ones out of so many available and suppressing the inferior ones as biased),
  4. Infrastructure (marble floorings, air-conditioning, cafeteria, LCD projectors, books in the library,
  5. Advisory councils (reflecting affiliations rather than the capability of the constituent members)
  6. faculty (their credentials rather than ability and availability to teach).

B-schools are now businesses with business-to-customer marketing practices in chasing students and business-to-business marketing in chasing potential recruiters. Executive education and consulting was always about business-to-business marketing.

B-schools are on the path of evolving into trading exchanges for the managerial-talent.


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Leadership Challenge for Indian Universities

In common with most of the public services during the last fifty years, higher education has felt enormous pressure on collective and individual morale, and suffered above average incidence of the impact of low morale (in, for example, extremely high – or extremely low – rates of turnover, and in the rates of stress-related illnesses). The objective causes of such problems are fairly easy to determine, and most can be traced to the effect of underfunded expansion multiplied by increased external scrutiny and accountability. Similarly, critics wishing to lay the cause of increased stress on management practice often ignore the evidence of stressors that start outside the workplace – or those that are, at least in this era, shared by other major employment sectors (such as reduced compensation – even in parity with civil services). None the less, morale is a key component of internal culture in higher education, and hence needs to be carefully analysed.

Maintaining the correct balance between quality research and learning/teaching, while the unit of resource continues to decline inexorably, is one of the key issues facing us all. The way around is the quality of leadership of the University. Management is about survival and ensuring the status quo. Leadership is about growth.

 

Management versus Leadership

There is an important difference between these two concepts. Stephen Covey, who has made a fortune out of his books revealing the habits of successful people, put it well when he said: “Management works in the system, leadership works on the system”.

Higher Education is a collaborative and structured dialogical encounter across asymmetries of authority. It is based on candid conversation that does not coincide with structures of power. How could educators be subordinated subjects of an educational system and yet become authoritative agents of educational leadership?

The key function of a Vice-Chancellor is to lead the University: to harness the social forces within it, to shape and guide its values, to build a management team, and to inspire it and others working in the university to take initiatives around a shared vision and a strategy to implement it. A Vice-Chancellor’s job involves both management and leadership, but the latter is more important than the former. A Vice-Chancellor should be an influencer and an enabler rather than a regulator and a controller.

 

Leadership and Change

Universities are not about ‘change’ – they are temples of knowledge tended by middle-aged men in crushed trousers who understand the laws of the universe. Universities aren’t part of society, reflecting the needs of the population – the sun-splashed ivory towers stand today as they always will. If we close our eyes, it will always be 1947 or 2017!

At the core of such cynicism is the issue of loyalty. Traditional academics do not regard themselves so much as working for a university as working in it. Asked for information about identity with various causes, they are likely to express greatest solidarity with the interests of a discipline, a slightly lower sense of fellow feeling with the (academic) members of a department, and only then a glimmer of ‘membership’ of the college or university. This value hierarchy is being assaulted over the past decades from a variety of fronts: from the changing map of knowledge, with its corrosion of disciplinary boundaries; from the emerging inter-professionalism of the academic enterprise – teaching as well as research.

Environment at the University needs to be one that fosters action to achieve excellence. All actions should be guided by a set of principle values. Values would ensure ethical actions. Actions without guiding values run the risk of trampling over the human and social good even if they produce the outcomes sought. There would need to be two sets of values – one that guides human collegial interactions and the other that would guide decisions and actions.

Principal values that the University needs to uphold in its interactions would be –

  • Love (and not poverty of intimacy)
  • Service of others (and not poverty of spirit)
  • Joy (and not poverty of loneliness)
  • Peace (and not poverty of sanctity of life)
  • Critical openness to reality (not illusions)
  • Strength (of morals and integrity)
  • Courage (of soul and character)
  • Faith and Trust (in us or we and not me or I because we is collective me only)
  • Tolerance (to Cross-cultural differences)

The key values that the university would need to uphold in all its work would be –

  • Integrity: Everyone is in favour of integrity, but it is often forgotten that integrity is simply another word for wholeness.  Most professional ethics problems arise not from a calculated design to act contrary to law, but through the inability to recognize boundaries and cope with unexpected stresses and pressures.
  • Equity: is about equality of opportunities. The university should be able to create an environment that provides equal opportunities to all its constituents – equal opportunities to learners to benefit from what is on offer, equal opportunities to its academics to perform their jobs and grow professionally and personally, equal opportunities to all stakeholders to guide and shape the course of evolution of the university.
  • Fair play: is abidance to the established standards of decency, honesty, rules, customs and law in conduct of affairs. The university should be fair and gracious in actions and responses directed towards all its benefactors, customers and competitors.

 

Crafting an Enabling Environment

A supportive environment (soft infrastructure) is composed of four key elements: the managerial team; systems of decision making; systems for communicating; and systems for appraising and rewarding staff.

  • Managerial Team: If the Vice-Chancellor is going to spend most of his time leading, then he needs to recruit others to do the managing. He needs to put together a group of managers who have sufficient coherence to work together as a team, and sufficient competence and power to manage the change. And having appointed these people, he must delegate as much of the problem solving, committee chairing and other work to them as possible,
  • Systems of Decision Making: To lead change successfully, one needs a decision-making structure that can respond rapidly to internal and external initiatives and pressures. This invariably means making the decision making structures less hierarchal and complex. One needs to delayer, decentralise, and devolve,
  • Systems for Communicating: Many change initiatives fail because the vision and the strategy are not adequately communicated to the staff whose commitment and support are crucial to their success. Normal methods of communication – internal newspapers, meetings with heads of school – are important, but the “informal” – management-by-walking-about – are the most important. As John le Carré has observed, “a desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world”,
  • Systems for Appraising and Rewarding Staff: Academics cannot manage by “exhortation”. One needs to change their behaviour – and, ultimately, attitudes and values – so that they support, rather than undermine, the vision and the strategy. Having appraised individuals and units, they need to be motivated by recognising and rewarding achievement not only by thanks, praise and status but also by money. Hence some resources need to be allocated – which will always be scarce – to units and to individuals on a performance-related basis.

 

Management of Growth

All Vice-Chancellors need to manage:

  • Federalism: Impress upon the Government that not all its universities can provide same kinds of outcomes and outputs and that there would be differential rates of growth amongst different universities towards realisation of national vision. Persuade the Government to permit a shortage on the monetary surpluses if the need be, until new recruitment and development initiatives have begun to yield dividends,
  • Faculty: Enhance the academics’ current ability to deliver on the vision of the university. Attract talent from all across the world and simultaneously invest in ‘growing your own’. The faculty needs to infuse a lot of fresh blood from across the world and become a visible player in the global labour market for academic talent,
  • Freshers: Recruit students who are attracted to the vision of the University; without compromising with the need to serve the local community, recruit the best from all over the world, and
  • Funds: Persuade benefactors of university to provide financial support, both to reduce the pressure on bottom-line in the short run and to replace tuition as the primary source of operating revenue.

 

In Conclusion:

Excellence is the state or quality of excelling that earns honour and respect from people. Moments of excellence can happen by default when the rest fail and only one succeeds. That is not sustainable excellence or excellence achieved but only a stray episode coming through a stroke of luck. The university should strive for sustained excellence at all times rather than some moments of excellence coming through by chance.

Making change work takes several years because successful change is sustainable change. Changes do not become sustainable until they are anchored in the culture – the core values – of the institution, and this does not occur until the changes have been demonstrated to work and to be superior to the old approaches and methods. Cultural change comes at the end, not the beginning, of transformation processes.

But past is where one comes from. It is the future that one lives in. Rather than wait for the future to unfold, the academic institutions need to focus on inventing the future.

 

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This is Part-4 of the series: Leadership and Management of Institutions of Higher Education

Part-5 of the series follows soon

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Already published-

Part-1: Setting Priorities for Indian Universities

Part-2: A Quick System Check for Indian Universities

Part-3: Designing Growth for Indian Universities

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Item Numbers and Friendly Appearances in B-Schools

Many people, with some years of work experience, show a craving to teach in a b-school. Similarly retired persons, from nearly all walks of life, defence, business, trade, bureaucracy or police also want to teach in b-schools. They want to do it for altruistic objectives and the fun of it. They usually get invited for a guest-session wherein they share their episodes of success. Such sessions are lapped up by the students as examples to emulate and contemporary information (usually mistaken as knowledge and wisdom) to be imbibed. No harm in returning to the classroom and speaking with the young minds. This helps the seniors to rewind and review their own lives as well as offer icons for emulation to the youngsters.  B-schools are also happy with such interludes, for they bring in the glamour of corporate connections, students’ delight and ‘realism’ to ‘theoretical’ teaching.

Given the shortage of teachers business schools face, quite a few of them are able to enter the fray as visiting faculty or guest faculty taking on the responsibility of teaching full subjects. Such engagements usually come tagged with decent financial benefits as well. But their honeymoon is too short. Either they leave the arena frustrated or the business school politely refuses a second chance. What really goes wrong with such well meaning and good intentioned initiatives is not too difficult to understand.

Teaching is not about knowing the subject matter and the experience in the field. It is more about the ability to facilitate learning by the students using the capability of knowledge and experience. Unlike school education where most teachers are trained for teaching, formal training in teaching at higher levels of education does not really exist. It is common therefore to come across expressions that one is a good teacher while the other is not in spite of their high capabilities in knowledge and experience.

It may be a good idea to articulate therefore, the competencies that teachers at professional levels of education need to have. The more obvious of them are:

  • Knowledge of Content and Skills Areas: A thorough knowledge of the subject matter, its organisation and contemporary developments are a must for a good teacher.
  • Knowledge of Learners and the Learning Process: It is essential to know the students, their academic preparedness or background, and the manner in which they learn. Typically, the students have learnt through lecture mode in a linear fashion in their schools and colleges. A lateral learning process at the business school is new to most of them and they do take time to pick it up.
  • Instructional Planning: Knowledge needs to be organised by its recipients. Assuming that the students can do it on their own, especially when they had not done something like that before can create alienation. The instructor has to plan the instruction to help students organise their new learning.
  • Use of Instructional Strategies: Instruction has to be aligned with learning objectives and processes. Lateral education brings in challenges for the learner and often times the student is unable to connect new learning with previous knowledge and expectations.
  • Learning Environment and Classroom Management: A classroom has to simulate real life. Students should be free to commit all their mistakes inside the classroom. The onus of creating a non-threatening environment where every student gets necessary opportunity to ‘dirty his hands’ and receive support and encouragement from the teacher is a must.
  • Use of Communication Strategies: Communication is less about what is shown or said and more about what is seen or heard. This requires a serious care on the part of the instructor. Let us remember the famous example where different students in the same class visualised a ‘chapaati,’ satellite dish antenna and the earth in a circle that the teacher was showing them.
  • Assessing/Diagnosing/Evaluating Strategies: Teachers need to assess and evaluate the differential levels of learning performance both for purposes of grading as well as diagnosing the reasons of differences to provide support for slow learners.
  • Use of Motivation Strategies: It is not uncommon for students to lose heart for various reasons during the course of learning. Providing motivation to them to continue with the task of learning rather than giving it up is a necessary responsibility of any teacher.
  • Use of Problem Solving/Decision Making Strategies: Lateral education requires ‘deciding for one self’ more than mere ‘awareness about the decisions’ of others. The primacy of decision orientation and problem solving in such education cannot be ignored.
  • Home-School-Community Relations: People’s homes and their schools are a part of the larger community that we all belong to. Any education that ignores home-school-community interdependency is likely to attract less empathy from the learners.
  • Use of Technology: If technology is all pervasive in every walk of life, can education continue to be primitively postured? Besides facilitating, technology also has element of novelty that grabs attention.
  • Use of Multicultural Gender Fair Strategies: With students from different cultural and geographical background converging into same class and with more female students joining in, the teacher needs to be perceptive to individual differences and sensibilities.
  • Professional Characteristics/Personal Qualities: Students always look up to the teachers for providing iconic imagery. Would students settle for sub-optimal icons? Conversely, can teachers scale heights of professionalism and qualities befitting the icons? The dilemma is complex.

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Teaching is a complete craft. The art side of it improves with practice and experience of teaching. The science side of it improves through continuous education, exploration and experimentation. Great practice of business can lead to a good artisan or craftsman but not necessarily a master craftsman. Further Master craftsman can only train the apprentices in the trade and not the managers of the complete trade.

Guest sessions are like the proverbial ‘tadkaa’ in the ‘tarkaari’ that improves the taste and appearance of the ‘tarkaari’ while cooking, but they are not the ‘tarkaari’ themselves. They are spices to be added in a dish but they are not the main ingredient in the dish. It is quite plausible to use the main ingredient as a spice in some dish but very difficult to use a spice as the main ingredient.

Friendly appearances and item numbers cannot and do not make the whole movie.