Thursday, June 11, 2009

B schools and the global crisis

This may seem a bit surprising but B-schools have emerged, in popular perception, as among the culprits in the present economic crisis. People think managers are to blame. Some of the high-profile managers in the crisis- Hank Paulson, former US Treasury Secretary, Christopher Cox, former Chairman of the SEC, John Thain and Stan O'Neal- are all HBS products. The conclusion drawn is that B-schools bear some responsibility for the crisis. Whether this is true and what needs to be done is the subject of my ET column, Crisis:are B-schools to blame?

Surprisingly, this view finds acceptance among b-school academics themselves. FT is running a debate on the subject and so is the Harvard Business Review. I must confess I find much of the discussion lacking in substance.

Let us grant that irresponsible managers have had a role to play in the crisis. Partly, this was a matter of bad judgement; partly, it was greed or lack of regard for the stakeholders in a business. Where do B-schools come in? You could say B-school research failed to pick up the warning signs of the crisis. But so did economic research outside B-schools. As for the greed factor, it is not confined to managers but is rampant in every walk of life- law, medicine, accounting, etc. Amongst greedy or corrupt managers, managers with MBAs are a tiny subset.

So, what can B-schools do in terms of revising their curricula? Well, there is a huge debate going on about the relative roles of state and market and, no doubt, B-school research will focus on this and weave findings from this research into revamped curricula. This is fine. The thing that disturbs me is the suggestion that B-schools also have a role in inculcating superior attitudes or ethical values in their students. HBS's contribution is to get their graduating MBAs to take a pledge or oath of ethics!

B-schools have responded to talk of their role in the present economic crisis with courses on ethics and leadership. No problem with that. But, one has to be sceptical about what to expect. To those who wish to create the New Man, I wish luck. I doubt that B-schools can contribute much. There are primary and secondary schools that were set up by saintly figures and began with similar, lofty goals but whose products are indistinguishable from those produced by ordinary schools.

Don't get me wrong.There is a hell of lot that B-schools need to do by way of updating their curricula and make it more relevant. But improving the ethics of their wards is not something that falls within B-schools' core competence. At the risk of offending people, I would suggest that there is a certain presumptousness involved in setting such goals. I mean, who's going to impart ethics to B-school faculty?


Prakash said...

to expect B-Schools to teach "ethics" is unrealistic to say the list. They are taught at home by parents.How many parents do it?How many parents believe and practice what they preach? Ethics get influenced by teachers and peers.

K.R.Srivarahan said...

It is not the greed of MBAs that did us in.Rather, what let down the economy is the ego / hubris that elite business schools inculcated in their students.The arrogant MBA (am I being tautological?) would never accept possible lack of knowledge. Complex derivatives are a shining example. Very few business managers here and abroad even tried to understand their implications.Most of them are MBAs.A non-MBA manager would accept one's ignorance.But, for an MBA acceptance of ignorance is tantamount to defeat and is never done.Are the elite business schools responsible for aggravating managerial hubris? I am afraid the answer is yes.I am reminded of one of the most ego-inflating professorial statements that used to circulate in B-schools: "If you don't hit the Board within 10 years, ---".

Mihir said...

Dear Mr. Srivarahan,

All due respect to your experience as a senior citizen, sir, but I guess you are being rather unfair to us MBAs by plainly categorising us as arrogant & egoistic.

What disturbs me more, though, is your statement, 'elite business schools inculcate [ego / hurbis] in their students'
Not really, sir.

I am from one such school, from the class of 2009. I never sensed that air of arrogance that you mention. Also, I have never heard of the, "If you don't hit the Board within 10 years, ---"

I would be cautious before making such statements, sir. Specially if I am not an expert on that topic.

If someone were to tell me that B-schools instill arrogance in their students, the first thing I'd ask them is - 'What's your sample size?'

Best wishes,
Mihir Modi

Roger's Ramblings said...

TTR, about time you considered publishing a compilation of your articles. To me, they would make considerably more interesting & sensible reading than say the stale, elitist, rehashed, coffee-table intelligentsia chatter that is compiled and published by the likes of Nandan Nilekani. In any case I suppose all that stuff is ghost-written as well, which yours is certainly not.

Anonymous said...

Dear Sir,

Is it possible to check for an ethical background when admitting students ??

Maybe B-shools are not to blame ... but sir, I would not expect / accept a blanket impossibility statement from you with regards to the innovativeness of B-schools ... esp the elite ones

@ Mihir, I am an MBA myself ... i can say that perhaps you did not come across such people ... but i would beg to differ ... I cant talk about everyone ... but yes i do agree that an elite school does instill a sense of confidence ... but i think it is necessary to draw a line between confidence and arrogance .. for any MBA


K.R.Srivarahan said...

Dear Mr.Mihir,
I thought that my comments would evoke responses like:" You are not saying anything new. What is the big deal?" Your observations are pleasantly different and I wish you were right.
You doubtless would have read books authored by Philip Delves Broughton "Ahead of the curve: Two years at HBS" and "What they teach you at HBS: My two years inside the cauldron of capitalism". Though he may not be a repository of all wisdom, his insightful opinions are worth the publicity they have received. He says,"My classmates shared a sense of entitlement, a feeling that they had already made it, a sense that by being accepted to HBS, they deserved high-paying, glamorous careers, if not cover appearances on Forbes and Fortune." "Has society allotted too much authority to a single, narcissistic class of spreadsheet makers and PowerPoint presenters?" "Members of my class were men and women of modest talents but outsize ambition. Boastful, insecure ,and occasionally charming, they were destined for careers that required them to sacrifice family and friends for the success they felt they so richly deserved." He goes on to add that many of his classmates were ethically challenged.

I am happy that you never felt the air of arrogance. It is also nice to know that MBAs are no more captive audiences to receive ego-massaging messages like "If you don't hit the Board in 10 years --".

What is my sample size? I passed out of IIMA in 1975 and have been interacting with MBAs from various institutes ever since.

Best wishes,

Anonymous said...

Dear Sir, I think the issue is more with the competitive environment that B-schools create, which is the first learning ground for students in the art of 'all's - fair' competition. Take for example IIMA, while it talks about ethics and fairness, at the end of the semester it just boils down to marks, awarded not to those who think creatively but are more adept at copying assignments and learning from black books by rote. There were numerous instances in my year of MCQs being lifted directly from websites that were circulated by the TAs for helping students prepare. Similarly, one has to only look at the example of the student who was awarded the all round achiever award for the batch after mine, despite being loathed, despised and an acknowledged megalomaniac who manipulated and bullied his way through IIMA's b-school fest and did the same on other occasions. No one in the faculty had the guts to say no to awarding him a prestigious prize and you expect us to believe that the B-schools are not culpable in distorting the sense of ethics of its students?

T T Ram Mohan said...

I do want to thank all of you for your thoughtful comments. It got me thinking about certain aspects of the issue I had overlooked.

Srivarahan, I value your comments, as always, didn't know you were from IIMA!

Raja, I did bring about a compilation of my articles categorised under broad themes (banking, privatisation, Indian economy etc) in 2004. It was published by Viva Books and carried an Introduction by Dr C Rangarajan. As for compiling the articles I have written see, let me see what's the best way I can use the material. By the way, do we know each other?


Mihir said...

Dear Mr. Srivarahan,

Well my sample size arguement falls flat then! But in any case, all I'm trying to say is, let's not generalise here.

First, not all b-school grads will be the same, for better or worse.

Second, even if there is some truth to the generalisation, it would be crazy to attribute the 'global crisis' merely to the arrogant attitudes of egoistic MBAs.

Anyway, no point 'view'ing and 'counter-view'ing over it. Let's just hope that these same MBAs we're talking about are at least instrumental in getting us out of the crisis :)


K.R.Srivarahan said...

Dear Mr.Mihir,

I agree that generalisations are better avoided.
True, human beings including B-school grads are heterogenous, and thankfully so.
Certainly, managerial arrogance was not the sole cause of global crisis.
I share your hope that MBAs will do their best to get us out of the crisis.


Anonymous said...

Here are some points that occurred to us:
1. We, as individuals, move out of home and go to college (for undergrad course), hostel life teaches us a myriad things. At the end of 4 years, we come out ‘evolved’. This can be distinctly felt and seen. We react to different situations differently. We learn to adjust. We learn to take care of ourselves. These learnings are not just limited to academics.But these lessons are learnt.
2. When we get into a B School, life changes all of a sudden. We learn to be ‘professional’ in our conduct. We learn business etiquettes. We learn to beware of other’s motives. All these are behavioural changes that our surroundings teach us.These are also learnt.
3. We are not psychology students, so kindly excuse us in case of any error in understanding what Carl C Jung has mentioned in his paper on how adults learn. He says that adults are also capable of learning, only their method is different. They cannot be taught as children are, by ‘telling’ them what is right or what is wrong. But adults do understand things by examples, where they do not feel subjugated or corrected by another individual thereby not having to give in to something that is inherently submitting, like a child does.
Therefore,there are ways to teach an adult.
4. B Schools (excluding executive MBA programs) are the first exposure of the ‘managerial role’ to the students. A first exposure must expose us to both the good and the bad side.

Taking all the above into account, can B Schools still not act as a remedy (It is undoubtedly not the cause) in this situation? Can’t in-depth discussion of relevant case studies in B Schools (that question the ethics of a decision with its long term repercussions studied in retrospect) help managers take the right decision in future?
One of our professors say that the cases he had worked on during his stint at IIM A has helped him immensely in drawing a parallel between his real life situations and the ones outlined in the case. Can’t a similar argument be applied to ‘ethics’ too?
And if that parallel is indeed present, then can’t B Schools be blamed for neglecting this matter so far? There is an inherent clash between the objectives of a profit making organisation that works for the benefit of its stakeholders and ethics. Shouldn’t B schools have realised this threat earlier on and included relevant cases and courses in their curriculum?
B schools are reactive to the industry rather than being proactive.
Sir, we would be grateful if you could help us understand the role of B Schools better, in this matter of utmost importance.


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