The role of management education in preparing the next generation of leaders for a different world

Do management practices, developed and refined in the 20th century that assume stability and predictability still dominate current business curricula? Eric Cornuel outlines four avenues for change. 

Management education, as practiced by academic institutions and professional bodies around the world, should not only prepare their students and learners for the world of today, but also for the world of tomorrow. But are we as educators really doing our best in this regard? Or do management practices, developed and refined in the 20th century, that assume stability and predictability, still dominate current business curricula? Even though we already live in a world of unpredictability that will require economic agents to be highly adaptive to change, and even to thrive on change. So, what can we do about it?

I would like to propose four avenues for management education to take on this challenge.

Firstly, by not only focusing on established organisations for research and teaching, but by cultivating an entrepreneurial spirit that activates the energy of our students, supporting a startup environment and the ongoing creation of new businesses, offering incubators and accelerators, and by celebrating entrepreneurial ventures and the successes of students and alumni. Many schools already follow this avenue successfully.

Secondly, by fostering learning agility and curiosity, and thus the self-learning capacity of students. This is not an easy task and requires the sponsoring of live cases, learning expeditions and experiential learning.

Thirdly, by exploring new ways of organising work and of rejuvenating mature businesses. As early as 1978, Gifford Pinchot III argued for small and independent business units, limited corporate policies and a strong focus on the customer when coining the term intrapreneurship.Christensen argued later in his Innovator’s Dilemma for autonomous units to scale innovative technologies and client solutions, as successful market leaders tend to codify their success formula and eliminate experimentation at the periphery.

The agile movement, spilling over in the last decade from the IT function to other parts of the organisation, understands work as a team effort in a decentralised organisational setup, with short rhythms of planning and retrospection to achieve a goal that can be adjusted to circumstances, with ongoing course correction and a maximum level of transparency.

These are just three examples of the manifold approaches to tackle the downsides of hierarchies and bureaucracies that we erected in the 20th century and that still define the identities of our private and public organisations: introspection instead of market orientation, risk aversion instead of entrepreneurial risk-taking, pushing through long-term plans instead of adaptability, organising work around machines and policies instead of organising it around people.

Our management practices were developed in the industrial age. As we move from the industrial age to the knowledge era, managing productivity is less a matter of flawless execution, but increasingly a matter of exploration and experimentation and of collective intelligence and inspiration around a purpose.

A lot has been published about unleashing human potential and liberation of the workforce, but in most cases the real issue remains unchallenged: the willingness to allow for a significant empowerment of the workforce and a power shift from the organisation to the individual.

Haier Group did exactly that. Its RenDanHeYi management model, developed and perfected since 2005, is such a radical approach that it merits being called a philosophy in its own right; it puts the individual and human potential at the centre. It empowers its employees to the fullest, thereby replacing middle management through a smart contracting capability. A lot can be learned from this example.

Our management practices were developed in the industrial age. As we move from the industrial age to the knowledge era, managing productivity is less a matter of flawless execution, but increasingly a matter of exploration and experimentation and of collective intelligence and inspiration around a purpose.

EFMD is proud to have translated this philosophy into a RDHY certification scheme for organisations in transformation, described later in this publication. We also plan to provide management educators with teaching material on RenDanHeYi, for inclusion in their curricula, to allow students to explore management in the digital era, and guidance on how to adopt a new approach.

But RenDanHeYi is more than self-organisation. It regards itself as fundamental to an ecosystem economy and pledges for ecosystemic thinking that invites collaboration in creating one thing: user value. Only if this value is created, can it be shared among collaborators within an ecosystem community.

And this brings me to the fourth avenue that I would like to propose: as business schools and management educators, we must actively advocate a stakeholder approach and put an end to the shareholder management approach. Business schools have a critical role to play to rewire our missions for relevance and impact, and to be close to the needs and address real issues of society and economy. At EFMD, we have been strong advocates of a broader approach to the role of business and management education, and we try to encourage business schools and companies to follow this route toward responsible leadership, sustainability and ecosystemic thinking.

The role of management education in preparing the next generation of leaders for a different world

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