Opinion | Will B-school teachers rise to the challenge?
Issues that were non-existent a few years back are heated topics of discussion in boardrooms today
In 1998, American biologist E.O. Wilson, in an influential book, pointed out that the greatest endeavour of the mind has been and will be the attempted linkage of the sciences and humanities. He called it “consilience”, borrowing the term from philosopher William Whewell, and described it as a “jumping together” of knowledge across disciplines. Fragmentation of knowledge, he argued, has been a big stumbling block in our attempts to provide holistic solutions with greater certainty.
The walls of scholarship erected around academic disciplines to provide focus and depth have, inadvertently or otherwise, barred cross-fertilization of ideas. As a result, the solutions that we formulate for key issues remain short-sighted and possibly inconsequential, or worse, harmful in the long run.
Take the case of two fields of studies—business education and liberal arts. In most universities these disciplines are far removed, which is unfortunate as there is immense potential for joining hands and to shape the minds of students to look at issues with multiple lenses. This is a process essential for generating critical insights on complex issues.
Today, the world that management graduates step into is increasingly, to borrow the military expression, VUCA—volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. The dots that need connecting have increased exponentially. Issues that were non-existent a few years back are heated topics of discussion in boardrooms today.
For instance, Google’s issues with data privacy are no longer just a ‘customer’ issue. The contours of this problem touch multiple uncharted areas: contested definitions of privacy, what constitutes ethical use of data, regulatory oversight of data usage and storage. A map to navigate terrains like these, which are what the future holds, does not exist. It has to be created.
Current business education provides useful tools to grapple with these issues, but most of the financial, organizational and strategic frameworks are, as an Aspen Institute report (Charting a new course for next-generation business leaders, 2018) pointed out, tied to the logic of the marketplace and typically short-term oriented.
A typical case study that is used in business schools would describe the organization, the problem situation, and financial and non-financial data relevant to the situation. It would expect the students to arrive at a decision that would help the shareholder maximize value.
No doubt, it helps to sharpen analytical skills. However, for the wicked problems we face today there is a need to go beyond. Maybe, question what shareholder value is and at whose expense is it maximized, how might this solution look for a different stakeholder, does the solution have within it seeds for future problems and how to connect or contextualize the current solution in the light of learning from other subjects.
In other words, what students need is development of multiple perspectives, synthesis of views, engagement with ethical frameworks and dilemmas and creativity—skills that liberal art disciplines offer.
Some attempts have been made at business schools to incorporate disciplines like ethics, environment and business history into the curriculum. They are useful to sensitize the students and are good first steps. But, they remain as stand-alone courses. Or they are seen as another course to be completed for successful graduation.
The structure of these courses is, as Anne Colby and others in a Carnegie Foundation report on business education write, like a barbell—academic disciplines on both ends, but with a slender connection. However, synergy can be derived only if disciplines get together.
There are trends that show the way. The Aspen Institute report documents some of these innovations. For instance, some universities have created course pairing or curricular pathways that encourage students to look at one big topic, say, ‘corporation’, from multiple lenses such as business law and political theory.
Some others offer an interdisciplinary capstone course that encourages students to synthesize learnings from multiple disciplines and apply it to a real-life problem. These courses are jointly taught with faculty members drawn from across the university. But, having taken a step in this direction, it also has to be recognized that there are numerous challenges in this journey.
Resistance to change is a key challenge. Entrenched disciplines and academicians often find it difficult to come out of their territory to explore something new. Turf wars and personality issues can come in the way of co-teaching courses.
The eternal perception war of the superiority of ‘hard’ courses (for example, quantitative or mathematical) versus the ‘soft’ ones will be an obstacle. Consilience is going to be hard but it is inevitable and, importantly, it is desirable. If students have to be taught how to think holistically and how to connect the dots, teachers need to be able to do both well and be comfortable doing so. Co-teaching—and that just does not mean dividing the course between two teachers—is the best way to set an example to students.
Changing our own belief structures is a critical prerequisite to changing the institution’s belief structure. All change must start from within to have a lasting impact.
S. Raghuraman and V. Anantha Nageswaran are, respectively, professor and dean, IFMR Graduate School of Business, Krea University.
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