“Often, change for change’s sake is extremely valuable.”

“Often, change for change’s sake is extremely valuable.”

In conversation with Srikant M. Datar, Arthur Lowes Dickinson Professor at Harvard Business School, on rethinking the MBA curriculum, the broader forces reshaping companies of today and core principles that should always drive decision-makers


A few months back I stumbled upon a brilliant convocation talk by Prof. Srikant Datar on YouTube. The 20-minute talk, delivered at FLAME (Foundation for Liberal and Management Education) in Pune, focused on why it made business sense to include ethics and empathy into a company’s core business strategy. Traditionally, leaders have often mistaken these two characteristics as ‘nice to haves’.

In his talk, Datar explained that several businesses have lost the trust of society. Average citizens should actually see businesses as a source of good –because they create jobs and build products or services that we need. However, they don’t see it that way. Datar believes it is time for businesses to realise that winning back society’s trust is key. In his talk, Datar also mentioned Helen Keller’s famous quote: “The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched – they must be felt with the heart.” He was reminding businesses and their leaders to work on touching the hearts of the people they serve.

Inspired by the talk, I requested Datar for an interview when I visited HBS as part of The Smart CEO’s media partnership with the Harvard India Conference 2014. For this article, we requested the professor to speak about his book Rethinking the MBA, the various forces that are reshaping the world of management and a quick tip to help business leaders simplify their thought process while dealing with complex situations.

Datar, of course, gathers his insights from teaching and researching at Harvard Business School. He’s the co-author of two widely read books – Cost Accounting: A Managerial Emphasis published by Prentice-Hall, and Rethinking the MBA: Business Education at a Crossroads published by Harvard Business Press. Datar also serves on the board of directors of HCL Technologies, Novartis AG, Stryker Corporation and T-Mobile US. Recently, he also started teaching the design thinking and innovation course at Harvard. Read on…

What was the trigger for your research on reshaping the MBA curriculum?

In 2008, when HBS was celebrating its centennial, the focus was on what the school had achieved over the past 100 years. In general, HBS does not engage in self promotion, but it was important to recognise the outstanding contributions of various professors and alumni. At the same time, we wanted to explore what we could do better in our MBA program.

Initially, the idea was to focus only on HBS but in the course of our research, we began to look at management education more broadly. When we reached out to other business schools, they welcomed the opportunity to collaborate with us on the project because no one had looked at MBA education and its curriculum for a quite some time.  For our part, we agreed to share the findings of our research at a conference for b-school deans and faculty. Schools could then use the research to make whatever changes they wanted to make.

I would say the research and the book would not have been possible were it not for the contributions and generosity of several business school deans, faculty and the business community.  My co-authors, Patrick Cullen, David Garvin, and I, just happened to be the people who pulled the ideas together.

One aspect I loved about the book was the suggestion to think through the needs of an MBA student from three angles – knowing, doing and being. What methodology did you adopt as you suggested this framework? 

To begin with, we researched a number of disciplines – such as medicine, law, and the military. In medicine, for example, students read a lot and gain a lot of knowledge but they are not sent out to work as doctors without doing a residency program. Essentially, the residency program aims to bridge the knowing-doing gap.

Upon graduation, medical students, take the Hippocratic oath, to help guide them through difficult decisions. The oath seeks to get at the essence of what it means to be a doctor. In the military, a lot of the training is actually not training by the book, but training by putting students in particular situations. Military decisions deal with people’s lives, so ‘being’ skills are particularly important.

Some critics say that these professions are different from each other, but I believe there are common aspects that bind them.

MBA programs have primarily emphasised knowing at the expense of doing and being. But there will always be gaps in knowledge because management decisions are often complex, contingent, and context dependent. While knowledge leads to frameworks to think about issues and questions, it often does not provide answers.  For this reason, the knowing component needs to emphasise on much-needed thinking skills, such as innovative thinking, critical thinking, and integrative thinking. Building these skills helps students to become comfortable making decisions and exercising judgment even when there are gaps in their knowledge.

Business schools also need to rebalance the curricula toward “doing” and “being” by giving greater attention to building these skills. Many of the “doing skills,” such as selling, becoming more innovative, or having a difficult conversation, much like swimming and playing the piano, can only be learned with repeated practice.

To sum up, business schools can develop managers capable of taking effective actions only by developing “knowing,” “doing,” and “being” skills. “Knowing” is important but without “doing” skills, knowledge is of little value. Without “being” skills and the ability to lead and inspire others to get things done, little will happen.

One aspect that is emphasised in the book is the value of learning by experimentation. How does this thought get translated into the b-school curriculum?

The recent changes in the HBS curriculum have emphasised ‘doing’ and ‘being.’ We have added a new Field course with three elements – Field 1, 2 and 3. In Field 1, students develop self-awareness, leadership skills, and the ability to relate to and inspire others. Field 2 is a global immersion programme. Students work on a real project in a company based outside the United States. In Field 3, teams identify a need and develop an idea to satisfy that need.

In the elective curriculum, I teach a course on design thinking. This course differs from typical HBS courses in three important ways. First, the classroom is different from the traditional horseshoe-shaped discussion classrooms that are suited for case-based courses. The class is offered in the i-Lab classroom designed for project work. Second, I don’t use cases but instead assign small-group exercises and projects. Third, I build the class with students from different disciplines and schools – Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard Medical School, Harvard Design School, Harvard Education School, MIT, and Tuft’s University.

People are often critical about change for change’s sake. In many contexts, however, change for change’s sake is extremely valuable. It helps organisations build flexibility and experimentation into their DNA.

What are the broad forces that are reshaping companies of today?

First, companies must confront a basic question: what is the role of business in society?  Each and every business leader should ask himself or herself this fundamental question.

Second, companies need to become more innovative because product cycles are becoming shorter, business is becoming more complex, information is more easily available and people are getting more connected.

Third, companies must globalise and become adept at operating in different cultures, contexts and markets.

Fourth, management practices would need to become more open and transparent. How do you empower people? How do you control them? The world is changing from a world where managers had high authority, and low conflict to one where the manager has low authority and high conflict. This will require managers to deeply understand different, often conflicting, points of view when addressing the challenges they face.

Finally, the role of data will continue to increase. In a big data world, managers would need to learn how to use, make sense of, and be comfortable with large volumes of data.

The world is becoming more complex, yet it is crucial to teach simplification. How do we teach leaders to simplify complex situations? 

The most important thing to teach is how to hold two conflicting ideas at the same time without getting confused. The manager must then learn to come up with new ideas that draw on the best features from both ideas. This is the skill of integrative thinking.

I am in favour of simplification, but we need to ensure not to over-simplify. When you do that, you develop a biased view by discarding the points you don’t agree with.

As the world gets complex, it is useful to remind ourselves of some simple truths such as Mahatma Gandhi’s seven deadly sins that can destroy people and organisations. Three of the seven:  knowledge without character, commerce without morality and science without humanity, has specific significance to business. I would urge business leaders to always keep this in mind.

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