What are we teaching when we teach business?

A very interesting article came out in the NYT about the general (and relatively accepted) lack of practical preparation of those graduating from law schools.  It begs the question: what are we teaching when we teach business?

What they did not get, for all that time and money, was much practical training. Law schools have long emphasized the theoretical over the useful, with classes that are often overstuffed with antiquated distinctions, like the variety of property law in post-feudal England. Professors are rewarded for chin-stroking scholarship, like law review articles with titles like “A Future Foretold: Neo-Aristotelian Praise of Postmodern Legal Theory.”

What are the business skills not taught by business schools?  In fact, taught might be the wrong word.  What are the business skills not being instilled in our graduates?

Some come to mind immediately.  Selling is not the application of marketing coursework.  Hiring and firing are skills not acquired through course readings and case studies.  Leadership is not got from a lecture on Shackleton. To be fair, there are scattered experiences and challenges that seem to provide new skills more than a mastery of knowledge.  But those are few and far between—usually happening in the interstices between chin-stroking lectures.

Worst still, however, I fear that while we catch up to what makes for the practical development of managers and leaders in corporations, the target has moved. In an era where the largest “customers” for our products, corporations, are shedding domestic jobs while ramping up overseas payrolls, the same old business education begins to resemble the classic tales we tell of organizations clinging stubbornly to what they know in the face of disruptive environmental changes.

Surely our graduates require skills other than those suited for long and steady careers in large organizations.

We have been increasingly drawn to entrepeneurship as the rubric for much of what’s missing.  It is the situation where there’s no organization to hide in; where there are no colleagues, admins, or others to carry the slack.  When you’re building something new—whether a new company or a new venture in an existing one—you can’t fake the basics.

So what are the essential skills that will prepare our students—even our children—to survive and thrive over the next fifty years?

2 thoughts on “What are we teaching when we teach business?

  1. Avisolo, the d.school is a promising approach. As a 2X graduate of the Stanford Product Design (undergrad and masters) I am a strong believer. There is much to be done to reshape the MBA curriculum and design thinking is a critical piece.

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