In earlier times, an apprenticeship was a much more fashionable way to learn a trade or profession. While the rise of cost-effective and scalable classroom teaching may have contributed to the demise of apprenticeships, the prevalence of internships has proved that on-the-job training is irreplaceable. There is only so much that lectures and readings can achieve: we very often learn a craft through observation and imitation. For example, we learn how to play the piano not by reading a Dummies Guide on it, but by imitating the moves of our instructors. We learn through observation, exposure and practice.
Classroom teaching and business cases are the building blocks of MBA programmes, and inevitably, there are structural voids that come with this mode of education. It is true that all schools have access to the same textbooks and cases. What impressed me most about my business school and professors is how they filled those voids, making an MBA education a holistic and seamless learning experience.
A business case is a reconstruction of a chain of historical events from the perspective of a bystander. It is all too easy to critique the decision maker with perfect hindsight and perfect data in an air-conditioned classroom. However, we all have emotions and don’t necessarily make the best decisions under stress and uncertainty. Furthermore, our decisions are bound by our position, belief and office politics. These inextricably intertwined forces are so important, and yet very often lacking, in typical business cases. Perhaps some of the issues are too polarising and politically inappropriate for publication. Having guest speakers who are in the know talk about their cases makes a substantial difference in class.
Guest speakers provide the context and inconvenient truth, and thereby complete the untold story. Through our interactions with them – some are the most influential and powerful figures in the world – we catch a glimpse of their souls, their fear and their thinking. They are only prepared to reveal their inner feelings when the professors are their good friends; the class is small, professional and smart; and the conversation is off the record. The most powerful assets of senior professors are not their publications, but their rolodex. The most important asset of a great business school is their students, not their facilities.
My visits to C-suite executives and senior government officials, and daily encounters with some highly talented classmates, have exposed me to the many possibilities in life. My friends and I have seen first-hand how highly successful people portray power, exert influence, and evade questions. We challenged them in class, as if they were classmates. Even more entertaining, and somewhat mind-boggling, is seeing the Jekyll and Hyde sides of many career politicians and senior business executives behind closed doors.
We did not like all we saw, but we had a better sense of what actually happens. We drew our own conclusions and learned from them. We have also become accustomed to nasty and provocative personalities, and at ease with senior executives of multinational corporations. We have been shown the dynamics and politics of boards of directors, and may even have been assimilated by them. We have become more like them. Maybe this explains the popularity of MBAs among consulting firms, investment banks, multinational corporations and other staid establishments. Perhaps this also explains why MBAs are not known for being entrepreneurial or innovative.
Originally posted on Education Post.