Late last year I wrote an article about what five years as dean of Nottingham University Business School taught me about leadership. I based the piece on my own experiences and those that fellow deans from around the world shared with me. The lessons I learned myself were covered in detail, but the lessons business schools might usefully pass on to their students remained comparatively overlooked.
I would like to address that issue now, since one of the fundamental problems throughout the sector is the growing gap between the typical business school curriculum and the conditions that confront students after graduation. I believe this a gap we must try to close if the talent of the future – and, by extension, the firms that employ that talent – are to benefit fully from what business schools have to offer.
The importance of integration
A chronic lack of integration that has become a defining trait of the typical business school curriculum. The longstanding segmentation of disciplines into separate areas of study – HRM, accounting, marketing, strategy etc – is now hugely at odds with a business arena that deals not in neatly packaged ingredients but in fully formed and frequently unfamiliar dishes.
The key, then, is to incorporate a perpetual state of disequilibrium that genuinely reflects not just the existence of change but the sheer pace and intensity of that change. With this in mind, consider the following elements.
Most areas of study have underlying principles that remain reasonably constant. It is imperative that these are debated, explained, experienced and – where and when necessary – modified over time; and it is crucial that the role of students in this process is acknowledged.
Managing uncertainty and change
For many students the journey from school to university to career is still predictable. Their expectations can often become set as a consequence. New perspectives and experiences will be required as the balance shifts more towards coping with uncertainty and change.
Practice and applications
Engagement is most effective if it is relevant to contemporary practice. Full involvement in actual business decisions, with a proper flavour of the benefits and costs these can entail, is absolutely essential if the world of uncertainty and change is to be experienced for real.
Principles from practice
It is practice – that is, real business activity – that must be the foremost driver in ceaselessly challenging the principles that underpin the full array of the curriculum. Practice shapes the common base of activities from which principles are derived, experienced, recognised and revised.
Ever-accelerating technological advances are likely to reduce the “half-life” of existing principles, condemn others to transience and leave some completely blown away. Students should experience this phenomenon first-hand rather than only be afforded passing knowledge of it.
It is radical innovation, not its incremental counterpart, that brings about “creative destruction”. Ideally, our students would go deep into the history of change by experiencing the reshaping of practice through the ages – in effect preparing for the future by reliving the past.
Know-about versus know-how
All of the above elements interconnect and/or overlap, and I believe the point at which they all meet can be summed up in one word: experience. To gain the tacit knowledge needed to make decisions amid uncertainty our students need to be thoroughly immersed in real change – just as those learning to swim need to get wet – and for this to happen business schools and would-be employers need to collaborate to the full.
Ultimately, it is experience that marks the difference between “know-about” and “know-how”. It is experience that reminds us that all the facts in the world are of genuine value only if we know what to do with them and what they really mean. And it is experience that propels us much closer to the impossible dream of our future talent being ready for each and every eventuality that might await in the “real world”. This, above all, is what business schools need to remember if they are to serve students and employers alike to best effect.