Failure is a positive thing. Wrong is right. An employee should manage his or her boss. Slow is fast.
For many employees, these statements amount to a wish list for their work environment. But, according to Jay B. Barney and Trish Gorman Clifford, authors of the book What I Didn’t Learn in Business School, these concepts should be integrated into the curriculum of business school programs.
Barney and Clifford’s novel illustrates strategy lessons by demonstrating how the planning process works and how human dynamics, which are rarely discussed in the classroom, frequently get in the way. The hero of the novel, Justin Campbell, is a recent MBA graduate who works for HGS Inc., a specialty chemicals firm, and must identify and implement a strategy for utilizing a new, advanced chemical technology. Justin has the degree for the project but at first lacks the tools to tackle the human side of strategy.
Barney, Chase Chair in Strategic Management at the Fisher College of Business at Ohio State University, said this reflects what’s often lacking in MBA programs.
“We do a good job in training people in finance, accounting and marketing in the MBA program,” he said. “We even train people in strategy as a single set of analytical tools. But strategy, by its nature, is an interdisciplinary, multifunctional activity. Our current educational system is designed to create functional experts and less so designed to create strategic general managers.”
According to Clifford, adjunct professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, understanding how to balance these priorities is the best approach to managing a firm’s resources and people simultaneously. “Awareness of the dynamic tension between efficient processes and actual human activities is essential,” she said. “Being efficient in the process and ignoring the human side is just as bad as overinvesting in the human side and ignoring the process side.”
In the novel, Justin and the strategy team must create an innovative strategic direction for the company in cooperation with the board of directors and senior management — illustrating further lessons about the planning process. “Rather than shying away from thinking carefully about others in an organization, including your boss, you need to think about how you can align your strategy as a result of your analytical work to make sure it incorporates the interests of all individuals,” Barney said.
Business school curriculums are currently not designed to promote this tactical learning. They allow students to learn the fundamentals of leading a modern business in a stimulating, inclusive environment, but these essentials are much more idealistic than realistic. Business school programs are created to expose students to a core set of advanced business concepts effectively and quickly, but by design, the curriculum does not nearly include everything a prospective employee might come across in the workforce.
“We have to find ways to bring the interdisciplinary component more clearly into the curriculum,” said Barney. “We need to provide insight to people who are, say, really good at finance but not as good at strategy, and show how those things come together to help a firm actually formulate and implement a strategy successfully.”
Thoughts of extending MBA programs an additional year or requiring employment in the student’s field in between stages of the program to gain experience have been considered by both authors, but these notions are both costly and institutionally risky. For now, MBA students must understand that although they’ve read the books, they must be prepared to fail, and when they do, fail quickly, fail cheaply, and move on. Failure cannot be punished if the individual is actively seeking an original solution.
“People who just satisfy don’t succeed in the long run,” Clifford said. “Students need to understand how to be open to learning new things, discovering new ways of doing things and hearing new voices.”
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