Sucheta Dalal :Exclusive -- India Needs Harvard st<x>yle Management Education
Sucheta Dalal

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Exclusive -- India Needs Harvard Style Management Education  

June 24, 2008

Acute Shortage of Management Cases!

Philip S. Thomas


In this Internet age, B-schools such as IIMs ought to be proactively reviewing their academic models to spot the risks of having to shut shop, or at least being sidelined, for not adding value to their students’ competences. They may not want to be reduced to administering superfine grained admission filters of mental agility which feed glorified diploma mills, imparting a veneer of management vocabulary, to drive gold-collar placement systems which make news headlines periodically.


A recent Harvard Business Review (HBR) article by Warren Bennis and James O’Toole  (‘How B-schools lost their way’, May 2005) had initiated the introspection by enquiring whether business schools as a whole were sacrificing relevance for the rigor of  ‘the scientific model’ of graduate schools of arts and science as opposed to ‘the professional model’ of medical and law schools. 


The scientific model relies on statistical research and the like in conjunction with “show and tell” classroom lectures (or lecture/discussions) duly leavened over the course of the program by a smattering of field study projects (individually or in groups) and the mandatory summer internship. 


In contrast, the professional model integrates field research of managerial practice, studied and documented both in a theoretical/conceptual context as well as the managerial setting, and carefully guided discussion in class to develop professional competences among participants – through classroom practice.


In response to the HBR article, many observers analysed the pros and cons and proposed well-known ways of increasing relevance. But, surprisingly, the question of whether, in the current academic context, they can be institutionally implemented remained unanswered. What seems to be needed, ironically, are “cases” of the implementation of the Case Method in academic institutions, especially as efforts in building (or rebuilding) a valuable capability in the case method.


Role of IIMs/B-schools

As Bennis and O’Toole have observed, B-schools/IIMs have a dual mission of aiding practice and adding to the storehouse of knowledge. Not only the names but also the mission statements of most B-schools talk about the needs of practitioners, if not industry in particular. However, in reality, these academic institutions seem to exist to serve the interests of faculty (whether it is in research, teaching or consulting) and this often results in institutional activities which go off on a tangent, diffusing the institutional focus.


What’s really required is that the B-schools stick to their self-proclaimed vision and mission and question whether the research undertaken institutionally serves the goal of being useful to students, practitioners and society in general. The idea is not to have faculty who excel in EITHER research or teaching or consulting, irrespective of the subject matter. It is to have faculty who excel in ALL these activities with a specific focus on management. It is not surprising to hear, in jest, that governing such groups is akin to herding cats!


While the vast majority of students will be applying their education in the real world, trying to get faculty to generate and use studies that benefit the community of practitioners is problematic. This is because institutions exist, as observed above, to serve the interests of faculty. That is not to say there aren’t exceptions. Ultimately each professor has the responsibility of making his or her course more practical and responsive to student needs. Professors are given great latitude in this regard. Some do a very good job but others probably do not.


Similarly students vary in the drive and imagination they bring to their management education. Some may capitalize on their aptitudes and single-mindedly (perhaps passionately) develop skills in chosen areas during their educational program despite institutional deficiencies. Along with this they would develop the necessary domain knowledge associated with the use of these skills.

This would leave the all-important competence area of ‘attitudes’ where some institutional value can potentially be added by inculcating “tough-mindedness”. Mental agility of incoming students has to be converted (however tentatively) into the development of mental stamina to cope with the many ups and downs of a managerial career. It may be the one category in which faculty can individually and collectively leave a lasting impact through effective and sustained application of the Case Method.


After all, if the phenomenon of management is about the idea of power and its practice at various system levels, then the Case Method (as the former HBS Dean, Kim Clark, observed) is about the “power of practice” by participants in a stimulating intellectual context created by faculty and nurtured by the institution.


The Promise of the Case Method

Business is about dynamism, while academia is about inertia (in the best sense of classics, timeless concepts, etc). The idea should be to enable students to view the current dynamism through the lens of the timeless ideas (or at least currently useful generalizations) and learn to chart future directions. This involves imparting knowledge, developing skills and, last but not least, inculcating attitudes that will stand them in good stead.


Note that knowledge is a resource that does not diminish with use but actually increases. The focus on practice in the classroom is consistent with the idea of knowledge as a potentially growing resource. In a B-school, a participant is introduced to a vast panorama of knowledge some of which will only increase with use over the person’s career.


Also the imperatives of a growing and prosperous society require academic understanding and theory development to move it to new levels together with insights designed to inject the new understanding into operation more efficaciously and with greater accountability. In the process, it is necessary to ensure that the methodologies and techniques being taught are primarily those that are practicable.


In pursuance of the foregoing, business schools should benefit from taking a less ‘scientific’ and more anthropological approach to business education. Conversely, they can try to apply greater academic rigour to the Case Method itself.

The latter can be done by imbuing practical subject matter with a theoretical/conceptual/academic grounding and framing. Thus faculty should cover plenty of operational issues in the curriculum through sensitivity to the operational needs of the practitioner. In the meantime, the practitioner must appreciate the fundamental benefits of theoretical understanding. As the saying goes, “There is nothing so practical as good theory”.


The Case Method professor, through class discussions (focusing on problem identification, structuring of options and deciding on a course of action), must curb the natural urge to “preach from the pulpit” to his/her students. Instead he/she must draw out lessons learned from the students themselves—to whom the mantle of “real-world experts” has been temporarily conferred (for the duration of the class) vis-à-vis the subject matter under discussion.


The Pitfalls along the Way

What are the fundamental barriers to change in B-Schools/IIMs and what can be done to eliminate, soften, or by-pass them to get directly to the students who clearly would have the motivation to participate in their education? These can be categorized as short term or long term.


Re-integrating with the environment: It is imperative that business schools recognize their responsibility to stay connected with their graduates and that schools fully utilize their alumni to develop curricula that meet the needs of the market. It is difficult for any management institution to develop a model of education without the type of environmental sensing that an engaged alumni network can provide. Such a network has the crucial advantage of providing resources both in terms of funds as well as vital access to intellectual property (i.e. cases).


Academic rewards: These have somehow to be redirected from research performance bereft of practical implication to mitigate the retraining of theoretically competent graduates because they lack practical wisdom. Evaluation cannot be restricted to whether the steps of scientific research have been meticulously followed. Whether the problem had any relevance to the industry, or whether the solution had any use for the customers of the B-school should also be considered as possible evaluation criteria.


Perhaps it is possible to develop an ambidextrous evaluation system which can operate on both dimensions. One, where the process (of statistical research) is given primacy and the other where the content (i.e. practice) is the main focus. This may be the fundamental barrier to diffusion of the Case Method.

However, if institutions are there to serve the interests of faculty, then the selection and socialization systems would also have to be geared to this along with the reward structure. Clearly, affecting such a wholesale recast would be a long term and painstaking process.


The bottom line: There are substantial costs to faculty and institutions alike in fostering such fundamental changes. Costs include larger-than-expected investments of time and money in field research. There is also the perceived risk of personal and institutional reputation (and related career paths) in 'academia'. What would the benefits be? These would primarily lie in adding value to client systems while expanding the frontiers of knowledge. Which among traditional business schools would be willing to incur the costs for the sake of the benefits?  How can improvement be achieved within 'academia' at large since business schools seem to be caught in a perennial tug-of-war between the 'scientific' and 'professional' models?


Innovation May be the Key

One factor that seems to be overlooked in discussions of increasing the relevance of management education or building a capability in the case method is that of timing and its corollary, phasing. It is often possible to make breakthroughs in the desired directions in new courses, new programs, new institutions, new collaborations etc. These may possibly be transient in and of themselves. But a sustainable momentum may result if a critical mass is created, or sought to be created in a phased manner.


The potential of new academic leadership (new deans or directors) in the case of such innovations is not very clear so far. For example, Bennis & O’Toole have favourably mentioned the initiatives of a new dean at their B-school without giving any details. Those chosen from within may enjoy a useful “honeymoon” period when innovations can be attempted. They can “hit the decks running”.


On the other hand those entering the system from outside it may encounter subtle “graft rejection mechanisms” which hinder needed efforts. It is possible that they too get some temporary “benefit of the doubt” akin to a honeymoon period. The prospect of having to expend valuable time and energy to cover the flanks is very real. 


All this underlines the importance of a carefully thought out strategy, born of a clear vision, and pursued with determination and tact. In the final analysis, it seems this process could benefit greatly from an anthology of live cases on the building of a critical institutional capability in the Case Method. The alternative for B-schools is simply to muddle through, learning by doing, trial and error etc in “the school of hard knocks”. Those who can do the former may be the prime movers, with the wherewithal to act on a strategic opportunity instead of waiting till it becomes a competitive necessity.


-- Sucheta Dalal