Thursday, January 14, 2010

Are Business Schools Going "Soft?"

So I'm graduating soon. By the end of 2010 I will have a bachelor's degree in Organizational Leadership. As a part of my 30 year-old plan I have to seriously start figuring out what I want to do for a masters degree. I've been looking into various options for my graduate schooling over the past five years. My general idea of what type of schooling I want to pursue has changed along the way. This is largely due to the various mentors and advice givers I've had along the path. These people include friends, family, academic advisers, various professors, and the occasional stranger. Please feel free to share your opinion with me and possible alter the course of history.

I have looked into programs of planning, organizational leadership, public administration, and most recently communications. I have been criticized by some advice givers that my preferred option (as of now) in communications is "soft" and that communications is mostly "fluff." I've been told that I would do much better to go toward business, organizational psychology, or planning. That I needed to stay away from those "people who talk about Discourse." I personally have never felt like business schools would satisfy me. I didn't feel that I was MBA material because I felt that most MBA programs were too rigid. It's somewhat hard to explain exactly what I mean by this, but I will try.

The business field has conventionally focused on "good business." What sells, what makes a profit, how to maximize the profit, and how to develop more efficient processes are the typical stuff of business schools. They call these various routes to success "business models," and will tel you how to be successful using these various models. Anyways, I have always preferred the "soft" approach of the social sciences that discuss things like implicit costs and social impact. I like the idea that everything is interconnected and that if we mess with one area to get a big profit, it can have disastrous results in another area. I like this because it's true! In business they generally don't care. The only entity to consider is the business and its stakeholders, which is a very narrow point of view.

So I was highly surprised when I was turned on to an article in the New York Times by one of my professors. The article explained that due to the recent economic crisis, many business schools felt that they needed to provide a more holistic thinking graduate. The article mentions that "[MBA Graduates] need to sharpen their thinking skills, whether it’s questioning assumptions, or looking at problems from multiple points of view." The article then echos my previous understanding that "learning how to think critically — how to imaginatively frame questions and consider multiple perspectives — [is] historically ... associated with a liberal arts education, not a business school curriculum." So what has been the solution? Change the curriculum to match the need. My response... about time. The article states that this shift in curriculum is "tectonic," which is to say foundational. A couple of the schools mentioned in this shift are the business schools at Stanford, Yale, and the University of Toronto.

This is wonderful news for me. My gut feeling that I would be better served by going "soft" is actually something that several business schools are trying to do as well. It's a strong affirmation that I wasn't in the wrong as a couple advice-givers suggested. Some business scholars such as Henry Mintzberg believe that all MBA programs should be shut down and that the only programs for business education should be those for people who have already earned some of their management stripes. Interesting thought.

Without doing away with one of the most profitable degrees for universities across the globe, I like the approach that several programs are taking. I really like the title of some of the courses mentioned in the article as well. Titles such as "Fundamentals of Integrative Thinking," and "Problem Framing," and "The Opposable Mind." These changes are in the face of traditional thinking, and not everyone is on board. The idea is that by creating a more socially aware and capable thinking graduate, economic crises like the ones we've seen in recent times will be less frequent and potent. However, as the article states, if the pay systems that reward huge short-term profits over steady long-term success remain, it will negate much of the attempted changes. The article quoted Upton Sinclair who said, "it’s amazing how difficult it is for a man to understand something if he’s paid a small fortune to not understand it."

For me, I've added a couple business schools to my list of options. They made a huge shift in their thought and so have I.