MBAs and ties to real-world people

By Chandran Nair

Letter to the Editor, printed Financial Times, Thursday, 6 July 2006

* Glenn Hubbard is dean of Columbia Business School, and formerly chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President George W. Bush. His letter, "Do not undervalue the impact of business education", appeared in the Financial Times on Thursday, 29 June 2006.

Sir, Glenn Hubbard * states the case for business education ("Do not undervalue the impact of business education", June 29) but makes some assertions I feel must be addressed.

First, the notion that business education produces leaders is surely held only by deep believers, not by rational business leaders. It is worth remembering that most business leaders hold no MBA. Second, suggesting the Industrial Revolution was the catalyst for improved world social conditions, and that human progress arose "largely from the application of sustained management attention to everyday enterprise", is hubris. This, I suggest, serious students of human progress would dismiss, notwithstanding historical interpretations and definitions of progress.

Third, a fundamentalist's view is that countries' prosperity hinges on their leaders and institutions embracing basic business principles. To say that business schools need to help transform other societies exposes a distinctly western perspective. I suspect these societies' take on progress and of the role of business in society may differ from Mr Hubbard's. A truly modern view would be to allow them to decide; not forgetting that embedded in the "new business models" that Mr Hubbard glosses over are many ethical issues that breed conditions for the Buffett-Gates type of "social transformation".

As a teacher of an MBA course called Leadership in Asia, I am most struck by students' strong desire to engage in taboo subjects. They say that issues vital to their future roles in society are omitted from MBA core subjects: ethics, discrimination, historical injustices, social responsibility, perverse incentives and greed, cultural sensitivity and governance. Mr Hubbard does not touch on these in his "defence".

There is clearly great value in good education: life experiences, including business learning, help create leaders. But not all leaders are good. Experience suggests that business schools need to focus on two things to become truly relevant to a complex, dynamically changing world. First, teach the wider framework within which business operates. This brings understanding of the moral dilemmas facing business people. It builds a strong sense of humility that too many MBA programmes seem to seek to erase. This will provide the skills needed to "pick locks" - as Mr Hubbard writes - to enable human progress.

Second, rather than business schools strengthening ties with business leaders "to answer real-world needs", the ties need to be more intimate with more real-world people. They have needs, are the future customers - and the future of society.

Chandran Nair,
Founder and chief executive,
Global Institute For Tomorrow,
Hong Kong