[Viewpoint] Rethinking business school practices

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[Viewpoint] Rethinking business school practices

JoongAng Daily ran a special series: “Korea 2020, Global perspectives for the next decade.” In its May 18 edition there was an article by Michael Barber, expert partner in McKinsey & Company’s global public-sector practice under the heading: “Retooling the brainpower factory.”

The primary message in the article was that “Korea’s education system should become more flexible to promote innovative thinking.” According to the author, the education system should teach students the capacity to think - to think for themselves and to think in teams. Teaching today is too much focused on knowledge and not on how to use this knowledge in complex situations as they appear in practice. It would require an education revolution, the author claims. One crucial ingredient would be a better relationship among schools, communities and businesses.

I fully agree with Michael Barber’s recommendations. It is, however, a more universal recommendation and not just pertinent to Korea to have these important relationships - even in the business school segment.

It is very Asian to push students to study hard. Education programs are shortened and even breaks between classes during the day are taken away to obtain efficiency. Over the summer and winter holidays, extra courses are offered so that students can finish their studies even faster. But are these well-meaning initiatives compatible with learning theory? I think not. When do students get time to reflect? When do they have time to recharge after a busy semester? When will they be hungry to learn again, if they have no breaks between classes and semesters? In business schools students are increasingly enrolled without gaining any practical experience and we teach them business concepts and models they find difficult to relate to because they have never seen a company from the inside.

After six years, counting undergraduate courses, we call them Masters of Business Administration. The employability of such students is very low, because companies find them too theoretical and unable to relate theory to practice. They don’t find students with the capability to contribute to the company’s activities from day one. Imagine a surgeon without practical training in a hospital before he is released to operate on his own.

In their book published May 2010 under the title: “Rethinking the MBA: Business Education at a Crossroads” Harvard professors Srikant M. Datar, David A. Garvin and research associate Patrick G. Cullen describe how recruiters voice skepticism about the value of newly-minted MBA degrees. One of the main conclusions in their book is that rebalancing from the current focus on “knowing” or analytical knowledge toward “doing” (skills) and “being” (a sense of purpose and identity) must occur. Learning from experience and reflection are key words in their recommendations. In this article I will give some recommendations for improving business schools’ education programs so they reflect the needs of the market today.

Several scholars have especially focused on the combination of learning and experience and even argued that experience is the most essential input for learning. Others have equated experience with learning and argued that learning is nothing more than just having experience. But learning happens from two sources: theory and practice. The best learning happens when the two sources interact. A blacksmith can be a very good professional through learning from practice, but he can hardly be an engineer. Theoretical learning would add to his experience and raise his learning to a higher level. Professionals with only book learning will also highly enhance their learning through interaction with practice. How can business schools create a learning environment that honors the principles of learning and combines theory and practice? First of all we have to respect the way learning happens. Then we should respect the two sources of learning: theory and practice and draw on both sources in an adequate amount, combine them and time them.

Learning takes place in three dimensions: content, incentive and interaction. Content is the theory we teach the students at business schools. Interaction is the students’ interaction with the environment, especially the business environment and the interaction with their peers and faculty. Incentive is the students’ motivation to learn. All three learning dimensions should be present in a balanced way for the individual to learn. How can we enhance all three learning dimensions?

A practical way to integrate the three learning dimensions is to let the students make written assignments and papers for companies and organizations. Students should interact with companies and organizations as early and as much as possible during their studies. This can be achieved by letting every student have an assigned company as a mentor company. In its simplest form, it could include a biannual visit and talk with assigned students by the company’s representatives. The representatives could tell the students about its line of business, resources, products, markets, competition or specific issues they have to cope with. By having these concrete examples in mind during their studies, students are much better able to understand concepts and theory taught at business schools. The hope is that assigned companies will let the students write their papers and thesis around their companies and thereby create a win-win situation, where both parties can help each other. In an optimal situation there will be a lot of company-student interaction during the four to six years of study and both camps will benefit and learn. The reasoning behind these papers is that students can heighten their level of academic training by individually digging deeper in theory than they would by simply reading textbooks.

Students will learn better if they can see that theory at business schools is useful for practice and that it can be used to solve issues from practice. By interacting with companies and organizations students will be much more motivated and perceive and understand theory better. They will come into positive cycles and learning will be enhanced. Another advantage is that students are introduced to companies and organizations and both parties have the chance to assess each other in an employment context. The employability of students will be improved. They are no longer “theoretical freaks” with no practical understanding. Companies will know that students from business schools can deliver.

Understanding how people learn is a prerequisite for designing learning programs for them. At business schools we can do better by combining academic and practical learning and honoring the three learning dimensions: content, interaction and incentive. Business school students are supposed to be employed by businesses, so therefore it is important that they interact with businesses as much as possible. And it should be from the very beginning of their studies. Otherwise much theory will be too abstract for them. If we can combine theory and practice continuously they will have a much better understanding of the many concepts and models we use in business schools. Why not interact with the companies? Both companies and students will benefit.

*The writer is an associate professor at Solbridge International School of Business, Woosong University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

By Jens Graff
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