Sucheta Dalal :Iconic B-school Management
Sucheta Dalal

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Iconic B-school Management  

January 27, 2009

Philip S Thomas
 
A set of six B-school cases has recently become available from Harvard Business School (HBS). The cases, written by Professors Srikant Datar and David Garvin together with Carin-Isabel Knoop (4 cases) and James Webber (the remaining 2 cases), are on HBS itself, Stanford, Chicago, Yale, INSEAD and the Centre for Creative Leadership (a reputed specialist institution engaged in "business education" ).
 
A careful review of these six cases might provide a preliminary basis for a composite global B-school "model" i.e. of what we call iconic B-school management. This should not be confused with any idea of the "one best school". It can then be used for various purposes perhaps after refinements are made in due course. For example, one can compare the contents of the IIM Review Committee's 2008 report with the iconic management model to examine the utility (advantages and disadvantages) of the former. Alternatively, an individual IIM's faculty could seek guidance on issues like curriculum reform, including its content and phasing. Here we focus on the latter exercise for introductory purposes. To begin with, we develop a composite framework for the iconic B-school management model in terms of a few dimensions in an indicative rather than a definitive sense. Then we briefly tackle the challenge of curriculum reform in IIMs.
 
For the present, we propose the following dimensions:
(a) Total program portfolio: broad vs narrow
(b) Campus configuration: multiple vs single
(c) Epistemological issues surrounding knowledge acquisition and dissemination
(d) Evolving curriculum structure
(e) Curricular reform strategy: radical vs incremental/organic.
 
Program portfolio reflects the variety of segments to which the institution caters. Consider Chicago. The B-school was founded in 1898 as a college (bachelor's level), added master's level courses in 1916, the PhD program in business in 1920 and a business journal in 1928. With the MBA being launched in 1936 and executive education in 1943, college level instruction was discontinued in 1950. Chicago had several research centers. Thus, in the space of about 35 years, from 1908 (when HBS launched the MBA program) to 1943, the elements of the standard B-school portfolio – MBA program, PhD program, executive education, research centers, business journal etc – pretty much fell into place.
 
The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) then came along to focus on the sub-set of business (or executive) education. It specialized in conducting programs for developing the (apparently generic) leadership skills of mid-career executives, globally, including through sports-style "coaching". But it relied heavily on behavioral science research as the basis for its programs, including the impact assessment of the programs and their refinement for future use.
 
Campus configuration refers to the locational profile of the B-school. Yale and Stanford were apparently in single locations. INSEAD had two campuses, in a suburb of Paris as well as in Singapore, where it conducted its teaching simultaneously. It also collaborated with Wharton School in the U.S. Chicago operated four campuses, two of which were in or close to the city of Chicago, while the other two were in London and Singapore. CCL had its U.S. headquarters plus two western U.S.A. campuses besides facilities in Brussels and Singapore.
 
HBS operated from its Boston campus but stood out from the others by establishing research (rather than teaching) centers overseas. These case research (facilitation) centers were located in Hong Kong, Buenos Aires, Tokyo, Paris and Mumbai. The footprint of the Buenos Aires center was subsequently expanded to cover Brazil and Mexico.
 
Epistemological issues refer to the core process used for knowledge accumulation and dissemination. Epistemology represents the B-school's DNA or genetic code. At HBS the main focus is on business enterprises (and, perhaps more broadly, purposeful organizations), and hence their management or leadership in dynamic environments. Accordingly, HBS innovated the Case Method of situational research and teaching nearly 90 years ago (in 1920 to be precise). Cases are fairly elaborate word-and-number (nowadays even multimedia) problems, based on real life situations to enable students or executives to vicariously (and at low personal risk) decide on the crucial issues involved and defend their views in the classroom. The instructor's role is to choreograph the group discussions in real time so as to achieve his/her teaching objectives of the case.
 
Almost all 200 HBS faculty taught by the case method and they produce, on average, a total of about 250 new field-based cases a year. The external demand for HBS cases ran to 8 million copies a year. HBS' practitioner oriented journal, Harvard Business Review (whose authors are not purely, or even mainly, in-house), had nearly 250,000 subscribers.
 
Stanford claimed to put equal emphasis on research and teaching in its B-school. But it was unwilling or unable to single out any particular approach to teaching. Thus, in addition to case discussion, it relied on theoretical overviews and their discussion, simulations, problem solving sessions, role plays and team projects. Needless to say, this eclectic approach to teaching (followed in many B-schools) is not inconsistent with HBS' case method – except to the extent that case research was not encouraged or undertaken. On the latter, the Stanford case has no clear information. Meanwhile at HBS itself concerns had grown about a perceptible shift "away from" the Case Method!
 
Yale had recruited a five-person case writing group which worked with faculty to create cases that were generally broader than those used previously. Many of the cases were printed copies. Some, however, involved multimedia aspects, delivered over the Internet, and were more extensive and expensive. In this connection, Yale was believed to be experimenting with "raw case portals". The aim was to expose students to actual, as opposed to "cooked" (or processed), data. 
 
Chicago took a different tack from HBS on cases. While Harvard has typically used cases as points of departure for analysis and discussion, Chicago tended to use cases to illustrate how theoretical frameworks can be applied in managerial situations. The B-school applied theories from, say, economics, psychology and sociology to business functions like marketing and finance. While Chicago did use cases, the emphasis was on lectures, text book chapters, problem sets, etc to teach theories and concepts. However, we consider that it is possible to write cases which enable instructors to teach frameworks that lie on the frontiers of knowledge.
 
At Chicago, there was a belief that "the same process that generated good research [also] generated better decision making in business." At one (perhaps trivial) level this was true of almost all problem tackling strategies. While not all Chicago's courses included the study of current faculty research topics including data sets, many did. However, while a course like Leadership Effectiveness And Development (LEAD) was taught by research-type faculty, these individuals were generally not doing research on leadership topics which were, moreover, believed by Chicago faculty to be problematic from a research standpoint.
 
LEAD was the only required course in Chicago's MBA program and the only one taken by any full batch of students albeit in sections totaling 10. The course provided opportunities to receive individual feedback on their leadership and interpersonal skills from facilitators who were drawn from their seniors. Chicago faculty considered LEAD "useful" but "not academic". In this connection, over 50% of a recent batch was placed in "Financial Services", the majority of them in the investment banking/management industry. The comparable figure for HBS was 10% less (i.e. in absolute terms) while the figures for "Consulting" were identical at both B-schools. Parenthetically, Chicago's LEAD had been adapted by Stanford in a part of its "Strategic Leadership" course. 
 
This brief discussion of epistemological issues serves to highlight the dichotomy in B-schools between traditional liberal arts, academic approaches and those needed in a professional education/training context. The Nobel Laureate Herbert A Simon once characterized it as the challenge of "mixing oil and water". The differences in how different schools achieved the required amalgamation are evident from the foregoing.
 
The evolving curriculum structure appears to be zeroing in on the following five themes in top B-schools:
(1) individual knowledge, skills and attitudes which effectively pervade the structure
(2) the relevant and required disciplinary knowledge and skills
(3) knowledge, skills and mindsets related to the functional areas of businesses and/or organizations chosen by students
(4) ditto for integrative areas like strategy and
(5) extension of the same to the global sphere. This is in the face of powerful competing forces on students' time in the extra-curricular and job search spheres growing out of a widespread perception that the MBA experience was not simply about acquiring basic competences but the wherewithal to live a (more or less) iconic life – with a little luck.  
 
In the sample cases, there seem to have been concerted efforts aimed at boosting core managerial competences, i.e. at the individual level – fundamentally, the ability and will to manage and lead. The peak may be represented by CCL which, in the name of "creative leadership" is practically seeking to drive executives in mid-career into what we would call "leadership engineering" through detailed and apparently scientific attention to enhancing self-awareness, career consciousness, social identity, ethical rectitude, etc with the help of personal trainers/coaches and the like.
 
B-schools like Chicago and Stanford seem to be doing this in a smaller way in some of their courses like LEAD and Strategic Leadership respectively. But Stanford had introduced a new course called "Critical Analytical Thinking" (CAT) which addressed a multitude of business, social and ethical issues.. The course involved the weekly submission of a three-page essay for purposes of which each student was assigned a "writing coach"/instructor. CAT was also designed to enable students to be "intellectually aggressive" in class discussions.
 
We will not dwell too much on the next three levels because of the complication of micro and macro elements in them. Take the disciplinary area of economics, for example. There is microeconomics which underpins functional areas like marketing and production. Then there is macroeconomics which not only bifurcates into the financial and real economies (at the macro level) but also shades into increasingly obtrusive areas like the political economy, society, ecology etc. All these are beginning to fall into the broad field of "perspectives". Issues regarding ecology cycle back into organizational imperatives for technology and innovation with new implications for microeconomics.
 
One of the striking features of the cases are the attempts (a) by Chicago to increase flexibility for students by providing course variety along the horizontal plane and (b) by Stanford to pitch courses at different levels of difficulty along the vertical plane (to challenge students) and thus enable them to "customize" their course selection. Thus Chicago has seven courses on "Competitive Strategy". The instructors only had to indicate how theirs was different from that of the others. Stanford had three levels of difficulty for some of its required courses.
 
This raises the question of whether and how HBS' case method implicitly caters to the "customization" challenge and if there are diminishing returns in Chicago-style course variety. Meanwhile, the increasing length of its cases had led to concerns at HBS about "burdens" on students and the quality of their preparation for classes.
 
As for globalization of the curriculum, INSEAD is probably the most advanced exponent in certain respects, since it had espoused what is called the "global business school" model. It had propagated a vision of a B-school as a "global knowledge and learning network". It did this by achieving a high degree of multiculturalism among its faculty and students (resulting in what the case refers to as "hyper-diversity" in the classroom); locating them in its campuses in Europe and Singapore; and entering into an alliance with Wharton School in the U.S. In addition, its curriculum was of 10 months duration, (with "dual intake", i.e. in January and September), which nevertheless packed an estimated 85% of the conventional "two year" MBA program (even though all courses were taught from an international perspective and, hence, there were very few courses with "global" or "international" in their titles). Purely U.S. centered cases were seldom used, the preference being for those with an international flavor. 
 
Though the admission process was singular, students were provided the opportunity to spend at least one "period" (and as many as 3) at the other INSEAD campus. Faculty did not face much of a problem in teaching because the MBA was structured in identical two-month modules on both the campuses. However, the junior faculty to whom research was important for career progression purposes, found the general academic environment in Singapore less than vibrant.
 
The medium of instruction at INSEAD was English though only about 20% of students were fluent in it. This posed challenges for class preparation and participation. Besides there were varying attitudes towards classroom norms and deadlines. Cultural norms also affected student evaluations of faculty with some being more critical than others due to cultural traits. Beyond this, the operational challenge of running two campuses in two time zones was significant. From the placement standpoint, Indian students seemed to make the maximum use of INSEAD as a stepping stone to careers in places other than their home land with the British displaying the least propensity to do so while Singaporeans stood in the middle.
 
Curriculum reform, whether incremental or radical, can be illustrated by the Chicago and HBS cases on the one hand and Stanford and Yale cases on the other. Chicago relied on "organic" (essentially incremental) change in its curriculum – course by course, section by section, as opposed to change that required wholesale, radical and collective action. In this process, the popular and required LEAD course mentioned earlier did get a new director with extensive industry experience in 2007 to strengthen students' leadership and management profiles.
 
At HBS, some recent changes in its required curriculum included the replacement of its general management course with The Entrepreneurial Manager (TEM) in 2000 and the introduction of a Leadership and Corporate Accountability (LCA) course in 2003. All TEM cases provided multifunctional perspectives and leadership in different types of organizations – large and small companies as well as non-profits.
Meanwhile, LCA used three disciplinary lenses – those of economics, law and ethics – to view accountability in a managerially substantive rather than merely methodological sense.
 
HBS appointed one of its senior faculty, Professor Jay O Light, as dean in 2006. In the case, he is depicted as merely being "mindful that the world and our peer schools" were changing and that HBS had to decide how to adapt. Presumably he would appreciate the efforts of his faculty in developing HBS' B-school cases under review though they were not purely for in-house use.
 
Stanford and Yale exemplify the radical efforts to reform MBA curricula. Both had relatively small B-schools. Stanford boasted a student/faculty ratio of only 7. Both introduced new MBA curricula in 2006/2007. At Stanford this was "the most far-reaching change in 30 years". It was piloted by a dean who had been appointed in 2000. At an October 2005 faculty meeting there seemed to be a consensus to reassess Stanford's MBA program. The problems with the previous curriculum centered on heterogeneity in student backgrounds and concomitant lack of sufficient intellectual challenge for about one third of the class, and the need to prepare students sufficiently for managerial careers, that too in a global environment.
 
Stanford appointed a senior professor to lead an 11-member committee to review the MBA program and recommend reforms. The committee spent 4 months to study the problem. Its strategy was to design a program "on a clean sheet" or from zero-base i.e. from scratch. But it was aware that it would have to adapt the existing one to get to it. We have discussed some of the features of the new curriculum e.g. customization and CAT above. Another feature was a fundamental re-sequencing of foundation courses and perspective courses. 
 
In May 2006 the committee presented its findings and proposals. It passed with 85% of faculty approving the changes. The dean then set up an Oversight Committee to guide the implementation. A group of senior administrators and members of the design committee was tasked as an Implementation Committee to carry out the required changes. Over the next year or so, this committee focused on the new demands on faculty time and on making sure that students would be placed at the right levels. The latter was facilitated by an algorithm developed by the MBA office. Students sometimes displayed reluctance to "challenge themselves" and risk their grades. The new curriculum was launched at the start of the academic year of 2007. Most students found themselves challenged but faculty morale had improved.
 
The significance of the Yale curriculum reform lay in several areas. Firstly it was spearheaded by the new Dean, Professor Joel Podolny, a Harvard PhD in sociology and tenured professor of strategic management at Stanford and Harvard B-schools. Secondly he was appointed Yale's dean in 2005 and immediately embarked on curriculum reform in which he himself played an active part. Thirdly, it included some radical elements in MBA course design.
 
The curriculum reform proposal was initiated in late 2005, the proposal was approved by Yale faculty in early 2006 and firmed up in the summer and the new curriculum was introduced in the academic year of 2006. A principal innovation was in Organizational Perspective courses that moved away from traditional functional orientations (like marketing, finance etc) to broader "role" based ones like "customers", "investors," etc. An international experience module and a leadership development program rounded out the major design features. To begin with Yale already small in size, reduced its class size tactically by about 10% to effect the new design. But it had not changed faculty recruitment or promotion standards. Yale was "pleased" with the first 18 months of the new initiatives. The key challenge faced was that of "sustainability" in view of potential human tendencies to regress to familiar ways.
 
In conclusion, we may have only scratched the surface of the insights possible to divine from the HBS cases on B-schools, whether singly or collectively. All who are concerned about Indian management education should study the cases themselves, perhaps discuss them in focus groups and even write some of their own, to arrive at directions for future development of IIMs and the like.
 
As we all know, the onset of the 21st century has coincided with a series of dramatic "wake-up" calls around the world and now even for India. There is urgent need for reform across the board and down the line to attain world class standards, Indian management education being no exception. Ideally it is necessary to take stock and launch mid-course correction in a full court press. But to begin with there have to be prime movers who can act on an educational opportunity without waiting for it to become a societal necessity. Serious thought needs to be given to the fundamental epistemological and curricular issues as outlined above. At the very least, the idea of "business-as-usual" should henceforth be banished from the mindsets of the top echelons of every B-school in India. Indian B-schools must get real, pronto.
 
 
Photo courtesy: http:/www.admissionsync.com


-- Sucheta Dalal



 



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