Globalization, Innovation, Leadership, Management Education, Uncategorized

New Year’s Aspirations

By Bob Bruner-


A journalist tracked me down to ask for my New Year’s resolutions—not just any resolutions, but resolutions for the entire field of management education. I concluded that it had to be a really slow news day.

The tradition of making New Year’s resolutions is well-intentioned but poor in outcomes—some 88% of resolutions end in failure (see this). Trying to fulfill generalized resolutions (such as “lose weight”) tends to succeed much less often than trying to fulfill specific measurable goals that might achieve the same outcome (such as “walk 30 minutes per day and drink water instead of soda.”) The U.S. Government catalogues the 13 most-frequently made resolutions; one is struck by their banality and negativity (quit smoking, drink less alcohol, etc.) I’m more motivated by positives than negatives. For all these reasons, I don’t do resolutions.

Then I learned that what the journalist really wanted were aspirations for management education in 2012. This is a different matter: aspirations help to set a vision. My answer to the journalist was easy: get ahead of the forces of change with which educators and business executives are contending.

1. Extend the "reach" in educational content and engagement beyond the borders of one’s home country.    I led a task force sponsored by the AACSB that critiqued business schools for having an overly-strong "home bias"—the task force published its findings in a report in 2011.  Even if a new MBA runs a business that he or she thinks is purely local, the odds are good that a supplier, customer, or competitor has activities that extend far beyond the locality.  I don’t think that business is as global as Thomas Friedman argues in The World is Flat. Rather, business has strong local and regional elements—it is “semi-global” in the phrase of Pankaj Ghemawat–which means that MBAs need to be prepared for big variations in business practices as they cross borders. Whether or not students plan for a purely local future, they must be globally confident and competent. For more, see this.

2. Accomplish more with fewer resources.  The rate of increase in tuition charges in higher education has not escaped the attention of critics and regulators.  Some of the increases were driven by the Global Financial Crisis and Great Recession: as funding from donors, governments, and endowments dwindled, colleges and universities have had to sustain themselves by increasing tuition charges. But the rate of increases is not sustainable indefinitely. Current-day values of austerity and sustainability encourage us to practice “less is more.” I have described Darden’s efforts and commitments in this regard (see this and this.) Universities may have no alternative; after governments get through "fixing" health care, I predict that they will come after higher education.  Business schools probably understand the importance of efficiency and effectiveness better than other divisions of universities.  Let business schools show the way for higher education.

3. Innovate.  Excellence in management education is a moving target. Simply repeating what has been done in the past may be familiar and convenient, but probably does not serve students or the business profession very well.  The best service derives from continuous experimentation with new approaches and ideas: more effective use of technology, moving didactic learning material online and devoting class time to genuine high-engagement learning activities, more experiential activities such as field visits, simulations of new product innovation and prototyping, and so on. Our approach to innovation at Darden has been to emphasize continuous improvement (see this for discussion of our processes.)

4. Speak up for what’s right.  The Global Financial Crisis and Great Recession have taught us that laws and regulations cannot prevent corporate misbehavior.  Capitalism has taken some very sharp criticism as the misbehavior came to light. And critics have claimed that schools have been too silent on such behavior. The critics argue that if business schools aren’t part of the corrective, then they must be part of the problem. At stake is the ability of b-schools to retain the public’s trust and to serve our educational missions. Schools can best “speak up for what’s right” by encouraging research, discussion, reflection, and learning on the nature of an ethical business climate. Darden’s Olsson Center for Applied Ethics and our Business Roundtable Institute for Corporate Ethics are leading research centers; Darden offers a required course in business ethics; and the University of Virginia has a strong student-directed honor system that helps to create a community of trust.

We laugh at Calvin, the little boy in the cartoon, for his sheer hubris: “I need to change? Well, buddy, as far as I’m concerned, I’m perfect the way I am.”  New Year’s Day is a great opportunity to reflect on aspirations and new possibilities. Not all schools have the resources (talent, social capital, financial capital) to stretch in the four ways I suggest.  And from a standing start, any one of these could take years to act upon. But the schools and nations that grow along these lines will fulfill more effectively their educational missions for MBA students.

Happy New Year to all!