It is time Indian B-schools did some soul searching on the relevance of management programmes in the evolving social context. Do we have the right missions, expectations and impacts? Or are we fumbling in the dark? The relevance vs rigour debate of the US can show the way.
Many leading American B-schools are in a soul-searching mode to strike the right balance between relevance and rigour. On the one end is the argument for more practical and competency-based learning, which meets the needs of businesses and on the other is the scholarly approach to teaching, grounded in the rigour of research.
Condemned in the US
More than 50 years back, the Ford Foundation in the US funded a report Higher Education for Business in response to the lack of rigour in business management programmes. The report highlighted that academics at some [business] schools were more akin to quacks; and the curricula offered were narrow, simple and weak. The calibre of staff and students alike was condemned, with the authors calling for more research and less consulting work by faculty, improved regulation, fewer case studies, more theory and analysis, and more teaching of ethics, according to The Economist.
More recently, the debate has shifted towards the lack of relevance of B-schools in the face of changing nature of business. Warren Bennie and James OToole in their Harvard Business Review article How Business Schools Lost Their Way critiqued the current model of B-schools and argued: The entire MBA curriculum must be infused with multidisciplinary, practical and ethical questions and analyses reflecting the complex challenges business leaders face.
Lessons for India
The relevance vs rigour debate is as applicable in the context of Indian B-schools. On one end of the spectrum there is a segment of B-schools like SP Jain and MDI, which have global ambitions, and on the other there are many which are struggling to fill seats. This wide spectrum of institutions has resulted in a two-tier structure, with a handful of high-quality institutions followed by a majority of mediocre ones. The need is to bring in systemic change and improve the quality of all B-schools. The lessons from the history and evolution of the relevance vs rigour debate in the US can inform the direction to be taken by the Indian management education system and avoid repeating the same mistakes.
Whats Your Mission?
First, B-schools need to develop a culture of defining mission, outcomes and impact. A majority of the Indian B-schools do not clearly define their purpose and direction. This results in misplaced expectations and poses difficulties in measuring impact. For example: one B-school can make a significant impact in terms of producing a pathbreaking research and another can make as significant an impact by producing a class of competent professionals. However, unless there is a clear definition of the mission and impact the institution intended to make, it will be difficult to strike a balance between rigour and relevance.
As Mile Augier and James March in their article, The Pursuit of Relevance in Management Education, note: The argumentis not merely an argument between experience and scholarship; it is also an argument over the proper criteria by which to assess both.