November 4, 2009

Speaking at the Columbia Business School today

I expected a more relaxed schedule after announcing my departure from NBC Universal few weeks back. Unfortunately it has not been so thus far. I spent the week of October 19 in California - spoke at the Digital Hollywood conference in LA early part of the week, and then spent a few days at the Web 2.0 in San Francisco on my way back to NYC.

I'm off to Europe on Sunday to speak at the Monaco Media Forum, but am planning to get some personal time during that trip (more on that later).

Today I'm a guest speaker for a 2nd year MBA class at the Columbia Business School. I always love a dialogue with students. America has arguably the best higher education infrastructure in the world, including the best business schools. In fact, this has been one of the biggest competitive advantages of U.S., and will remain so at a time when questions are being raised on the country's continued dominance in the future as the #1 global economic superpower amidst much faster growing emerging economies like China, India, etc.

When it comes to business education, I believe that MBA programs need to be more steeped in real business environment than they have been in the past. There has to be a tighter cooperation/engagement between daily classroom training and actual real-world situations. In fact, there are some who argue that MBA education, as it stands today, is a total waste of time. Students graduate with theoretical frameworks and un-realistic expectations which fail miserably in the real world.

One of the hottest topics of today, after a handful of unfettered, greed-driven American financial institutions almost single handedly brought down the global economy, is whether capitalism is the best economic framework to run a country. I'm still a strong believer in capitalism, having grown up in India's government-controlled market system and seen its serious limitations (before India liberalized its economy in 1991 and invited foreign investment). However, ethics is a core component of capitalism. The U.S. economic debacle was a failure to observe rules of ethics, not the failure of capitalism itself. This requires managers to maximize value to "stakeholders" not just "shareholders." Stakeholders include shareholders plus customers & society, without which no business enterprise can make money in a sustainable manner over the long run.

The format of business case studies, which simulate real-world situations, was deployed in business schools as a step to expose business students to real world situations. However, it is very easy to discuss, say, a case on business ethics in a classroom and decide what is right and wrong in a vacuum when participants are not personally involved in that situation in an actual work setting. It is far more difficult to do that in a real-life situation, say, at your job, because the right answer usually has shades of grey, instead of black or white, and decision makers have personal stakes/interests involved.

Unlike science, where we have empirically proven laws which always stay the same, the practice of running a company and generating returns for shareholders is an art. It evolves constantly. There are several external influencing factors including market environment, regulatory laws, political and social changes, trade, technology, etc, which are constantly changing, thus requiring real-time adjustments to business practices. Real-life experience dealing with such fluidity therefore becomes a more critical determinant of success in business than a classroom training.

For someone who finished his MBA back in 1997, an interaction with current MBA students is therefore always fun. Looking forward to it.

1 comment:

chris harvey said...

Good post, Sab.

I agree that business school could always use more real-world relevance. I went to a case-only school and found it to be excellent preparation for the real world. Putting yourself in the role of the decision-maker in case after case teaches you that you can never know all information before making a decision and that you must take action.

One change I would like to see is more business school professors who have real world experience. Experience teaches so much more than book learning, and my sense is some academic types just don't get that. I always made a point to see all the guest speakers that came to my school. I often learned more from one speech from them than entire courses.