Saturday, June 14, 2014

Alternate Pedagogies to Enhance the Effectiveness of Management Education - Part 1

How can we help students learn how to manage? This is the biggest challenge faced by management educators. Over the last 50 years, management research has become more sophisticated, and uses more rigorous (even if somewhat complex and esoteric) methods to enhance the validity of its findings. But, there is broad consensus that management theories will remain mid-range, that is applicable in relatively narrow circumstances and that “general” theories of management will remain largely elusive. So, the “broad” theories found in text books will remain important and useful, but may not cover all the contingencies a manager will face.

Further, as ICICI Bank Executive Director K. Ramkumar told participants of a Workshop on Emerging Pedagogies in Management Education (WEPME) held at IIM Indore recently, good managers need more than managerial “knowledge” – they also need skills, perspective, and attitude. As business schools have embraced research more closely, and as faculty have been evaluated more on their research output than their teaching (true in all the top business schools in the US), the knowledge component of management education has tended to get emphasized more than skills or perspective (business schools do very little on the attitude front; in fact, it could even be said that they have a negative influence on attitude, but more on that some other time!).

The History of Management Education

Management education started out in the early 20th century as more of a vocational training with practitioners sharing war stories from their experience or tricks they had picked up on the job. Harvard Business School (HBS) deserves the credit for moving away from these war stories to a more rigorous approach of learning how to manage in different situations by pioneering the case method. Patterned on the Socratic approach to learning, students at HBS are exposed to a mind-boggling 400+ cases during the MBA programme. If nothing else, by the end of this, they have the confidence to tackle any situation! Each case represents a real managerial situation faced by an executive in the past with all the dilemmas faced by the protagonist and the (limited) data available to her in taking such a decision.

The Limitations of the Case Method

HBS likes to call its case-based education “participant-centered learning.” There is no doubt that when practised seriously on both sides (i.e. by instructor and student), the case method can be a powerful method of imbibing decision-making abilities. But, the case method has its limitations as well. To be effective, it demands high levels of prior preparation from participants. It could take 2- 3 hours for a student to prepare thoroughly for a case discussion. The teacher needs to be skilled enough to use the case effectively – contrary to the philosophy behind the case method, many teachers are known to push a single solution preferred by them rather than be open to a debate around the many possible solutions that are proposed by the class. Linking case discussions to theory and concepts is another skill that not all instructors have.
Another major criticism of the case method is that the typical case study is a neatly packaged set of facts and data, but most decision makers in real situations will rarely have access to data packaged in such a “ready-to-process” form. A joke is often told about the HBS MBA graduate who when given his first task on the job asks where is the case on the situation so that he can “crack” it. Cases also tend to be static, in that they represent a decision problem at a particular point in time, and don’t represent the dynamic changes that are a part of most managerial environments today. Case writers have found a way to address this – through multi-part cases that track the evolving decision-situation over time. But few cases are available in this multi-part form.

The “Raw Case”: An Alternative to well-packaged cases

One interesting solution provided to these last two criticisms is the “raw case” pioneered by some faculty at Yale University’s School of Management. Their internal case portal has “cases” on a number of companies of interest. But each case is not neatly written and bounded. Instead, it consists of links to articles, videos and other internet resources related to the company chosen, and these are updated regularly. As a result, the student (and the teacher!) have to wade through a lot of unstructured information, much like in the real world. Of course, this makes the preparation challenge even worse than before, but that’s the cost of simulating the real world better.

The Power of Simulation and Games

Since the advent of computers, simulation and computer games have opened up new possibilities for management education. Multi-player games that simulate market-based competitive situations have been around for at least a couple of decades. But these games were expensive, and needed powerful servers to be effective. In recent years, the power of the high bandwidth internet with audio and video streaming has changed the landscape for such simulation and games. So has the power of computing itself.

To understand more about this landscape, we organized WEPME 2014 at IIM Indore (IIMI) recently. We invited 13 leading vendors of simulation-based learning tools to present their solutions to the faculty of IIMI, academic associates, doctoral students, and faculty from other institutions. Here are my key takeaways from the workshop in the context of the management education challenges I raised above.

Several products (Global Strategy game, Capsim, Brandpro, Markstrat, EnParadigm) simulate multi-player competitive situations with multiple rounds of engagement. The exact details vary across the games, but players can decide on investments in manufacturing, R&D, and marketing; introduce new products, and change prices; choose which markets to focus on, etc., all within well-defined resource constraints. At the end of each round, each team can see how it has performed vis-à-vis other teams, “learn” from this experience, and then apply this learning in the next round while at the same time making assumptions about what others will do. This certainly provides a good framework to learn about business decision-making in a dynamic and competitive context and is a good counter to the lack of dynamism and competitor response in most case discussion exercises.

Once concern I have about these games is that they make execution seem very easy, pretty much at the touch of a key. Changing a strategy or re-orienting a company is a very hard task from an organizational perspective, but I fear that thee games tend to gloss over that. Henry Mintzberg has criticized MBAs for being Master of Business Analytics rather than Master of Business Administration, and these decision-oriented games could be criticised for reinforcing that analytical streak. Dharam Pal of SanRisk Solutions (that sells Capsim products in India) shared with the audience that his product replicated at least one dimension of real-life execution: team dynamics. From his experience, the quality of a team’s performance in Capsim depends on the cohesion of the team; even if one member is obstinate or refuses to cooperate with the others, the team is often unable to respond effectively to the feedback from prior rounds!

(To be concluded in my next post. All views expressed here are my personal views.)

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