Academic leaders defend the prevalent forced-curve grading system, which ensures that only a certain percentage of students in each class get As, most get Cs, and some fail, as appropriate training for the rank-and-yank systems awaiting them in many companies. Business schools intentionally immerse their students in situations in which there is more to do than they can accomplish confidently to reproduce the kinds of pressures they will face in their business careers; to teach them to work smart, to know when “good enough” is better than “perfect,” to prioritize, to delegate, and to focus on what they do or can know, rather than on what they might need to understand. Kim Clark, the former dean of Harvard Business School, described this as a “flight simulator” model of business education. To be sure, the traits this model fosters are valuable, even necessary in many situations, but an overemphasis on them has often served MBA education poorly.
Some of the greatest benefits of the business school experience, in fact, derive from the ways in which it is not like the environment students will enter upon graduation. It isn’t enough to reproduce the realities of business challenges through simulations and case studies; schools also need to painstakingly build up knowledge, skills, and instincts that can’t be learned in the working world, so that students can eventually respond to challenges with more skill and insight than they would have without their graduate education. Students should graduate with deep, well-considered judgment, not with a set of default positions. And perhaps most importantly, business schools should consciously explore the purpose of enterprise itself. Business education should not just develop students’ comfort with risk or ability to get along with others; it should focus on the goals toward which MBA graduates will apply those skills.
As Harvard Business School Professor Rakesh Khurana argues in his book From Higher Aims to Hired Hands: The Social Transformation of American Business Schools and the Unfulfilled Promise of Management as a Profession (Princeton University Press, 2007), historically, the central goal for leading MBA-granting institutions was to “professionalize” business management — a task that requires both a generally recognized body of necessary knowledge and also a commitment to a wider purpose of public good. But Khurana and others argue that this is a mission from which business schools have drifted in their focus on a narrow short-term vision of business and of business education.
Several emerging trends in business education stand as responses to the emphases of the last few decades, and they all involve tying practice to a sense of broader or deeper purpose. Generally, these approaches involve moving from what might be called a “rules-plus-analytics” model of management education to a “principles-plus-implementation” focus.
A rules-plus-analytics model teaches that the rules governing corporate behavior — whether imposed by regulation, by competitors, or by one’s own management — are simply constraints to be overcome; the analytic tools represent ways to work within or around any rules in your way, for the sake of winning the most immediate competitive game. This model emphasizes impersonal aggressiveness, in which managers walk as close to the legal and ethical line as possible — even crossing over it when they expect they won’t get caught. It encourages students to interpret Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” theory (which says that individually motivated actions combine in unplanned ways to enrich the greater community more than top-down policies ever could) to mean that in any given situation they do not have to consider the wider implications of their choices because the market will.
A principles-plus-implementation model of management education, by contrast, starts with the fundamental questions of why a business exists and how it builds and deploys wealth. It teaches the reasons for rules — the principles underlying them and the history behind their creation — and offers the challenge and the opportunity to practice decision making in the service of the goals that the rules were created to achieve. This model focuses on the individual’s acceptance of professional responsibility for a wider commitment to the public good. In this model, as Khurana notes, leadership success is a matter of personal and collective knowledge, judgment, and commitment, fueled by an awareness that the invisible hand works only under optimal conditions and that it cannot be relied upon as a safety net or, worse, a get-out-of-jail-free card.