What Business School Hasn't Taught Me
After reading a reflective and inspiring post from one of my friends and classmates about what 4 months of business school has taught her, I found myself doing the opposite. Instead of reflecting on what I've learned, I've been reflecting on what I haven't learned. For what it's worth, I'm not necessarily expecting to learn these things in business school, I merely catalog them here as a way of encouraging myself to learn these things on my own. Here are the three biggest gaps I can think of:
1. Structuring Unstructured Problems
Something that has been surprising about business school is that most of the business problems we study are already neatly summarized - whether it be in the cases we read or in the projects that are outlined by clubs who sponsor consulting projects. What I've found to be excruciatingly hard in my professional life (whether it be at work or volunteering) is that the most difficult part of any project is getting it off the ground and defining what it should be. This is precisely the exercise that business school eliminates from the problem solving process in cases, community consulting projects, or other challenges.
Defining problems takes a keen mind, discipline, experience, and many other strategies and attributes. It's hard to do generally, and even harder to do quickly, effectively, and cheaply. This is one of the things on my list that I would've expected business schools to emphasize. Instead of learning to "deal with ambiguity," we're learning to deal with ambiguity in predefined contexts and archetypes.
2. Understanding he responsibility that comes with the education provided by a top 10 business school
At my school, and presumably other top 10 schools, we're not strangers to the fact that we're going to a world-renowned business school. I've heard more than once, for example, that we're in the top .1% of all students studying management worldwide. Our institution implies that we are being groomed to be some of the world's most capable business leaders.
But what is the responsibility that comes with the purported power than many of us will have to influence the study and practice of management? Do we have obligations to advocate for fairness and responsibility? Must we think at all about the health of an industry and do we ever need to put the needs of that industry or the needs of society before that of the firms we are stewarding? What are the virtues we must exude as business leaders?
Sure, we have to take one required ethics or business law class, but this response seems to have a base rate bias. If ethics and responsibility matter more when you have power, shouldn't ethics and responsibility be more core to our academic experience than having a single class about it? Not to sound tired with a comic book cliche, but doesn't great power - that we will supposedly have - come with great responsibility?
3. Raising the ability of those who have not cultivated their own talents
One of the very strong realities which was tough to understand when I started working is that different people in the "real world" have different skills and abilities*. Not everyone has the had the opportunity to cultivate their talents as much as others. Consequently, some people aren't as capable as others.
In college, and even high school, I was surrounded by extremely talented people - this is a consequence of having privilege, I get that. But that's not what every organization and every team is like. Talent is spread disproportionately across our companies, institutions, and society, which means that some teams don't have very much talent. The chance that I'll be surrounded with an all-star team for every challenge I ever have is unlikely. Because of this reality, I think it's basically essential to learn how to help others raise their own abilities and cultivate their talents.
There doesn't seem to be any acknowledgment of this reality in business school. Even if it is acknowledged, this is something we don't really get the opportunity to learn about and deal with because we're not often around dysfunctional organizations. On the contrary, the organizations that the school chooses for us to work with on action-learning projects are handpicked so we can avoid dysfunction! In the instances where we work with dysfunctional organizations, presumably by accident, those stints only last a few weeks. This short time horizon makes it easy to work around problematic individuals, rather than work with them.
* - When I say this I don't imply that people are stuck being less talented than others, but that different people are at different stages of their own development. There also could be valid reasons that they are more or less talented in a given discipline, some reasons may even be outside their control.
Most of you reading this know that I attend the Ross School of Business. Most of you don't know that I've had a really difficult and interesting time adjusting to business school. I still think it's an exceptional school (with exceptional people, especially the faculty and staff). I present this merely as a way to reflect on my experiences thus far and hopefully improve upon them.
What's worse, however, is that I hardly think Ross is unique in this regard. From reading about and talking to people at other "top" business schools, the more I think the sorts of problems I suggest are endemic to business schools themselves. If that's the case, we either have to acknowledge my concerns as irrelevant, transform the pedagogy of management, or accept that the topics I've presented are things we business students have to learn on our own.