To Prepare for the Future, We Must Relive the Past

Genuine, experience-based “know-how” is vital to survival and growth and can bridge the ever-expanding void between stasis and evolution in business education.

Late last year, shortly after stepping down as dean of Nottingham University Business School, I wrote about the need for business schools to evolve. I based the piece on my own experiences and those related to me by fellow deans from around the world.

My basic contention was that the gap between the typical business school curriculum and the conditions that confront students after graduation is getting wider. My deanship, which spanned half a decade, allowed me not just to understand the alarming disconnect that this rift increasingly represents but to appreciate how difficult repairing it is likely to be.

I noted in my post that many of the constraints that nowadays envelop business schools—among them, bureaucracy, metrics, measurable outcomes, and the growing encroachment of professional managers—are less than conducive to the leeway required to bring about meaningful progress. I also lamented our self-imposed fondness for incrementalism, which not only flies in the face of the spirit of innovation we routinely espouse but is perilously at odds with the realities of life beyond our ivory towers.

We are all aware of these and other obstacles, even if we are occasionally reluctant to concede our complicity in erecting some of them. But let us imagine that we should somehow escape the shackles of centralism, shake off our own inertia, and at last find ourselves with free rein to practice what we preach. Granted the opportunity, what would we do—and, indeed, what could we do—to stand firm in the eternal battle to remain relevant?

"Ultimately, the crux of the matter seems to be the age-old distinction between 'know-about' and 'know-how.' "

It is interesting first to ponder the extremes. We could focus purely on the underlying principles of business that we believe are universally applicable, regardless of how significantly the trading environment might be transformed; or we could restrict the curriculum to managing uncertainty and change, accepting that conditions will continue to develop so rapidly that factual information and content will inevitably be irrelevant by the time of graduation. Neither extreme is especially helpful in isolation, but together they highlight the need for us to find an appropriate balance somewhere along the continuum that links them.

One reason that business schools have consistently failed to strike this balance is the lack of integration that has traditionally characterized the curriculum, which to this day is still rooted primarily in the study of discrete areas such as strategy, human resource management, accounting, and marketing. Perhaps now more than ever this longstanding segmentation of disciplines scarcely reflects the complexity of a business career. We deal in ingredients; the “real world” deals in dishes, many of whose recipes can be both unpredictable and unfamiliar.

So how do we ready our students for such a potentially daunting feast? Maybe the key point is that the design of any curriculum must seek to incorporate a perpetual state of disequilibrium, and for that to happen we need to borrow from the Austrian-influenced approach to economics and accept, however unhappy the thought, that perfection is impossible.

  1. Recognize established principles. Most areas of study have underlying principles that remain reasonably constant. It is imperative that these are debated, explained, experienced and—where and when necessary—modified over time. And it is crucial that the role of students in this process is acknowledged. As Groucho Marx said, “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them ... well, I have others.”

  2. Manage uncertainty and change. For many students, the journey from high school to university to career is still predictable. Their expectations and even their sense of entitlement can often become set as a consequence, which may not be beneficial. New perspectives will be required as the balance shifts from information and understanding to experiencing and coping with uncertainty and change.

  3. Apply business principles. Engagement is most effective if it is relevant to contemporary practice, and case studies have a part to play in illustrating that point to students. However, if we want students to become more radical, creative thinkers, we must involve them in making actual business decisions. Only then can they can experience the uncertainties of business and get a proper taste of the benefits and costs their decisions can entail.

  4. Understand real-world business principles. I observed earlier how the principles that underpin the full array of the business school curriculum should undergo continuous challenge. It is practice—that is, real business activity—that must be the foremost driver of this process. Practice shapes the common base of activities from which principles are derived, experienced, recognized and revised.

  5. Accept the rapid evolution of business principles. Related to the above, we have to accept the sheer speed at which principles can now change. Ever-accelerating technological advances are likely to shorten the “half-life” of existing principles, render others transient, and leave some completely blown away. Again, students should experience this phenomenon first-hand rather than merely have knowledge of it.

  6. Appreciate the history of practice. Joseph Schumpeter’s notion of “creative destruction” captures superbly the lack of permanence that results when entrepreneurs cause economic development through radical rather than incremental innovation. Ideally, our students would go deep into the history of change by experiencing previous practice—in effect preparing for the future by reliving the past.

I remarked before outlining them that all of these elements to some extent interconnect and/or overlap. We could demonstrate as much in a simple Venn diagram in which the first three elements would be the principal sets and the second three the points at which two of those sets intersect.

But how might we best describe the point at which all three sets meet? This is literally and figuratively central to the argument, because there must be something that unites all of the above; otherwise we are left only with a hodgepodge that risks perpetuating the chronic lack of integration I have already mentioned.

The answer appears to be writ large in the preceding paragraphs: in discussing each and every element, I refer to “experience.” Perhaps a better and more compelling word would be “immersion,” because to gain the tacit knowledge needed to make decisions under conditions of uncertainty our students must be thoroughly immersed in real change—just as those learning to swim have to get wet.

Ultimately, the crux of the matter seems to be the age-old distinction between “know-about” and “know-how.” We are on the cusp of an era in which a few swipes of a tablet computer’s screen may be sufficient to download the sum total of humankind’s learning, yet all the facts in the world are of authentic worth only if we know what to do with them, what they really mean, how they might be applied, and how they combine to make new facts.

We will never be able to prepare our students for each and every eventuality that the business sphere might throw at them, and we would be wise to acknowledge as much; but we can at least aspire to a level of informed flexibility and adjustment that permits the close and relentless pursuit of an ever-elusive ideal. The greater and more effectual transfer of tacit skills alongside fact-based knowledge will help us achieve that.

Genuine, experience-based “know-how” is vital to survival and growth. In our extraordinarily “connected” world, where boundless resources and repositories of wisdom are apparently ours to exploit as we wish, this knowledge can make the decisive difference between sharing in failure and sharing in success. Above all, it can bridge the ever-expanding void between stasis and evolution, which is precisely the Rubicon we have been struggling to cross for so many years.

Martin Binks is the former dean of Nottingham University Business School and a professor of entrepreneurial development at its Haydn Green Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.