Educating for uncertain scenarios that await us

In the latest edition of the London Business School Review I was pleased to see an article by my dear friend Charles Handy on how business schools must adapt for the future.

He opens by recollecting that 51 years ago he returned to England from America to join the fledgling London Graduate School of Business Studies, now the London Business School. There he launched the Sloan Masters Programme, in which I was a student 46 years ago.

“A business school was then an American import,” he writes, “largely unknown in Europe.” He recalls that a friend wondered why he wanted to teach typing and shorthand, assuming the school was another name for a secretarial college! Since then of course such institutions have become widespread all over the world, and an almost essential basis for a business career.

However new times bring new challenges, warns Mr Handy, with multiple opportunities and dangers. So it is not enough to learn from the past, increasingly an inadequate guide for the uncertain scenarios that await us. Business schools have always been educational pioneers, he acknowledges, with their simulations and case studies and live projects.

But now, in this era of fast-changing technology and political disruption, they risk becoming “out of touch, irrelevant and over-priced” and so must change radically if they are to avoid losing their influence.

Next, absorb this great to-do list for business students from my favourite management guru: they should take nothing for granted, question accepted wisdom, and display boundless curiosity and unrestricted imagination. They must be bold but humble, respectful of authority but doubtful of its conclusions.

As far as their teachers are concerned Mr Handy sees them as only first among equals, who must learn to act more as mentors and encouragers rather than as experts laying down the law to obedient listeners. Amen to that.

And to reflect the new form of learning not only will the design of the lecture theatre have to change, but its very name. (In the spirit of this radically different concept I have been saying for some time that I would ban the term “lecturer”, thanks to the know-it-all attitude implied and applied.)

I am familiar with William Wordsworth’s quote that for him poetry was “emotion recollected in tranquility”, so I related well to Mr Handy referring to the form of learning he is advocating as “experience understood in tranquility”.

Ideally, he suggests, students would be thrust out alone into the world, to return after some months to the tranquility and reflection of the classroom.

Who are most suited for such programmes? Not necessarily those with the highest academic scores – despite these being easier to assess, he acknowledges. His final plea for the business school of the future is that it should not provide an overly academic environment, and so faculty selection and promotion too should be based on broader criteria.

Only when the faculty list includes professors of philosophy and drama, education and psychology, will business schools be appropriately equipped for the very different world ahead, he concludes.

Leadership styles

Imagine how good I feel remembering that among the undergraduate subjects I took within my economics studies was one on French existential literature, and that later at the London Business School our class reflected on different leadership styles by analysing the writings of Plato, Shakespeare and others.

So this is my message to both faculty and students of business schools: take note of what Mr Handy recommends and dramatically expand your comfort zones. (You can read his full article at https://www.london.edu/lbsr/educating-for-uncertainty)

Through my involvement with tertiary education over the years I know only too well how hard this will be, for most teachers and for the overwhelming number of learners. I say this as whenever I lead undergraduate and even graduate classes I always find it so hard to get the students relaxed enough to contribute substantively.

Given common practice such active participation lies way beyond their expectations. Yet when I nurture their confidence, gently but firmly, they eventually find their voices.

Therefore to have our education be fit for purpose in these demanding times, big doses of “tough love” will need to be dished out… not least to our very traditional lecturers.