A business school in Shanghai hosted the Asia-Pacific Conference for Deans and Directors two weeks ago. Most of the 60-or-so attendees hailed from Chinese b-schools, and about 25% came from b-schools in Australia, India, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore and the UK. One session of note: “Challenges for Management Education in the Region,” which featured this description: “With criticism of MBAs and the MBA itself at an all-time high, this session examines how management education faces the challenges of both equipping future business leaders with the tools to succeed, and addressing the concerns of those that see MBAs as motivated only by greed and lacking in moral and ethical values.”
The session did a good job of teeing up the issues – of scouting the terrain and reporting all the fires. B-schools in the Asia-Pacific region, and worldwide, suffer from:
– The relentless demand to prove value based on rankings. Rankings are often inherently flawed, in part because they tend to measure short-term performance vs. long-term value, in part because many of their statistical models would not pass an exam in a b-school instructor’s statistics course. But rankings-based market pressure is extreme, and b-schools inevitably focus on their rankings as a result, just as quarterly earnings reports pressure publicly-traded companies to focus on short-term performance at the expense of longer-term value creation. To their credit, the b-schools at Harvard and Wharton famously began refusing to cooperate with BusinessWeek’s rankings earlier this decade, despite these b-schools being at the top of the league tables. (For Harvard’s view of rankings, see their Alumni Bulletin of February 4, 2008)
– Inertia and bureaucracy, a powerful force in any organization, but especially so in the university sector. In China, the heavy hand of the government in education aggravates these negative forces. One example: The b-schools here are still required to teach Marxist-Leninist theory. A vice dean at a leading b-school in China refers to the China-specific bureaucracy/inertia phenomenon as a “tension gap” between Chinese b-schools and the demands of the business community. Moreover, the vice dean says the gap is growing.
The conference session proved less valuable in providing insights into how b-schools can go beyond mere understanding of the issues – reporting the fires – and move toward fighting those fires. B-school faculties have long proven their ability at analyzing problems. Solving such problems becomes not an exercise in academic analysis, but an exercise in strategy implementation, good execution and breaking through bureaucratic barriers – organizational firefighting.
One hundred years ago, Thomas Edison said, “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” The b-schools around the world, and particularly in China, would do well to rebalance their efforts away from the genius of inspiration toward the operational rigors of perspiration. To do that, they’ll need to get close to the fires, and fight them day by day. Whenever you see b-school leaders moving beyond merely reporting the fires toward actually fighting them, send them lots of drinking water – they’ll be closer to the flames, and sweating as a result.
John D. Van Fleet works in the university sector in China. He lives in Shanghai.