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Challenging the Management Academy

In January of 1984, I arrived at business school to study for an MBA. That same month Apple launched the Macintosh computer with a commercial shown during Super Bowl XVIII.

Only the most diehard American Football fans remember the result of the game, or even who played – but nobody will ever forget Apple’s 60-second “Big Brother” commercial. Here’s a link to the commercial, which I’ve been showing to my students – who, of course, weren’t born at the time! With the promise of computer technology for the mass consumer, this commercial set in motion a revolution that has continued uninterrupted ever since – although nobody then could possibly have anticipated its scale and impact.

Since 1984, emerging digital technologies have been accompanied by equally remarkable geopolitical phenomena – the birth of the internet, now accompanied by the rise of cyberwarfare; the prevalence of social media and now the rise of governments and non-state actors seeking to exploit it. Of the most profoundly influential companies in today’s world – Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, Uber, Tesla and AirBnB – only two, Microsoft and Apple, existed in 1984, and even then, they were fledgling start-ups.

Hardly any of this change was predictable when I was a business school student in 1984 – neither the scale nor the pace of change. Now that I’m back at a business school as an instructor, I find myself asking whether management education, with its long-established academic norms, has kept pace with this process of change and transformation. I fear the answer is no – and there are material consequences for the companies and institutions they will one day lead.

In 2010, Harvard Business School’s Rajesh Khurana wrote that, “The kinds of problems that our society faces, not only American society, but global society – sustainability, climate change, pandemics, entrenched poverty – are issues that will require business to be part of the solution. But business will not be part of the solution if it is populated by individuals who have a very narrow conception of what their role is, who have a very narrow view about how business fits into the larger institutions of society.”

It is indeed increasingly clear that to tackle our most complex problems – not to mention, to restore public confidence in our ability to do so – we’ll need to nurture a generation of broadly gauged integrative problem solvers equipped to decipher, engage, and conquer these problems in creative ways. But doing so will challenge traditional approaches to management education, which, like so many aspects of higher education and wider society, have become highly specialized, fragmented, and siloed.

During my professional lifetime, we’ve taken an increasingly narrow approach to designing our lives and careers – imprisoning ourselves in self-limiting definitions of our own professional competence and confining ourselves to insular cocoons of self-reinforcing orthodoxy. We’ve convinced ourselves that we can know only what we already know and believe only what we already believe. To paraphrase the Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, we’ve come to adopt a fixed, rather than a growth mindset.

In order to tackle these challenges and others like them, our CEOs and business leaders need to span the public, private, and non-profit sectors as tri-sector athletes promoting collaborative governance. They need to confront and transcend the tensions between competing perspectives as integrative problem solvers. And they need to understand and engage with problems that blend different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives. They need to embrace the benefits of integrative problem-solving and of cognitive diversity.

But today, these kinds of leaders are few and far between. Most business leaders do, in fact, seem to have a very narrow conception of their role – and as that conception has narrowed even further, they’ve lost a sense of what’s wise and what’s right.

When I published my book, The Mosaic Principle, one thoughtful reviewer noted that I am not “some hippy-dippy flower child with an inherent distaste for and distrust of corporations and consultants.” Indeed, I am not. I am a trained technocrat with degrees in business and public policy. I have spent most of my career at McKinsey working with businesses, governments, and nonprofits. I come from the world of institutional knowledge and technical mastery.

However, during my professional lifetime I have watched with increasing concern as the pendulum in business, as in much of society, has swung decisively away from broadly gauged problem solvers committed to addressing complex, multi-dimensional problems – and toward narrowly focused, technical experts. We have swung comprehensively from breadth to depth.

In so many walks of life, skilled professionals have responded to our ever more complex and interconnected world by trying to master one small sliver of it – hoping the rest will be taken care of by somebody else. The worlds of business, government, and social action have become independent, hermetically sealed silos, and higher education has exemplified – if not amplified – this trend.

Of course, specialist experts have contributed to extraordinary advances in the physical sciences, medicine, computer technology and so much more. But as an organizing concept for our society, our leading institutions, and for each of us as individual human beings, ultra-specialization has so far proved to be deeply flawed – in at least three significant ways:

First, ultra-specialization is remarkably error-prone – both in predicting and handling the future. Numerous studies have shown that specialist experts – characterized by over-confidence, binary thinking, confirmation bias, and a herding instinct – are outmatched by the volatility, complexity, and ambiguity of our era. If an accurate prediction is what we’re looking for, we’d be better of consulting a non-expert, or better yet – as Daniel Kahneman provocatively quipped – “a group of dart-throwing monkeys.”

Second, ultra-specialization is acutely at risk of obsolescence. With ongoing advances in technology, it now seems especially risky to rely exclusively on specialist knowledge and skills that a changing world will render redundant in a few years. Instead, we should prepare for a world whose defining characteristics we can neither assume nor predict.

And we do needs to take the long view, if for no other reason than that life for many of us will last much longer than we might have expected. As we enter the era of the 100-year life, many of today’s students will need to prepare for longer careers punctuated by new milestones and turning points. There will be an increasingly pronounced and persistent tension between the individual’s desire for choice and flexibility and the institutional world’s desire for system conformity. That tension challenges all of us who are in the business of preparing young people for the world they’re going to live in – and one day, lead.

Third, ultra-specialization is woefully inadequate for tackling today’s most vexing problems, let alone those of the future. From climate change to healthcare affordability, and cyber security to collapsing infrastructure, these problems are all around us – and solutions are hard to find. Finding these solutions requires new kinds of collaborative governance between business, government, and nonprofit leaders – the kind that has seemingly become so hard to engineer in recent years. Today’s more enlightened business leaders realize that this shift will prove decisive, especially as they face mounting pressure to play a more activist role on major issues, most recently from Larry Fink of BlackRock. But many of them are amateurs in this respect, lacking the tri-sector experience, the integrative problem-solving skills, and cognitive diversity to take on this challenge.

Where ultra-specialization falls short, a life lived as a mosaic not only equips our students with a capacity for sustained agency and meaningful impact in the world, but also affords them the breadth they need to flourish and thrive in every stage of life.

Now more than ever, not least because we find ourselves in an era of increased longevity, it is essential that today’s business schools prepare their students for careers of flexibility, choice and diversity, prioritizing the development of transformational assets that will enable them to make frequent and productive transitions.

Business schools and other academy organizations can and should be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem. But to play a constructive role, they’ll need to embrace a comprehensive agenda for change.

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