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A Hard Task Master

|May 20|magazine14 min read

Ever since the Global Financial Crisis shook the world in its shoes, there has been much debate about where exactly B-schools stand with respect to the financial meltdown. Should B-schools be categorized under ‘cause’ or ‘effect’, what lessons have they learned from the GFC, and how can B-schools reorient themselves from the point of view of the crisis? The minds of management pundits’ have been awash with such questions.

Even as the carnage in global finance had left hundreds of employees stranded, the next generations of corporate hopefuls have filed back to class since October 2008. Research data says that there has been no significant dip in B-school applications across the globe. The crumbling of Lehman Brothers was an illustrative lesson for the financial community in general and banking industry in particular. Is that why management students have flocked to B-schools expecting some lasting changes in the curriculum to tackle meltdowns better? If so, what will be the focus?

FOCUS ON RISK

Experts believe that people will spend a lot more time than they used to learning about risk management and understanding the subtleties. Traditionally, B-schools have taught fundamentals of risk management, study of policies and procedures, for the past fifty year. But the availability of Risk Management as a comprehensive elective along with Marketing, Finance, Operations and Human Resources is a very recent development. The GFC will probably make many B-schools include Risk Management as one of their electives. Or better still introduce the Study of Risks as one of the core compulsory courses. The GFC may have hit the financial sector the hardest but the fallouts have been felt across all verticals. A thorough knowledge of risk management, not just at a basic level but at the highest level of application would help prevent another financial downturn in future.

Other experts believe that simply adding on courses to B-school curriculum would not help. What is needed is a thorough revision of syllabi which currently relies heavily on mathematical modelling and forecasting techniques based on historical data and assumptions. What are mathematics but only tools to capture a just single dimension of risk which is anything but one-dimensional. One needs to have a wider and more robust vocabulary when talking about risk because no single mathematical formula is going to account for all of what risk is. One way to make better use of mathematical modelling would be to devise better models especially that which are capable of accounting for seismic and unexpected shifts in the market. For instance, in recent times, prices of commodity have behaved in an inexplicable way. Instead of relying on historical information of prices, a way needs to be devised of coming up with better measures of risks in real time.

The downside of delving deep into mathematical models of risk studies is that the subject matter would become totally incomprehensible to students from academic backgrounds other financial and technical. We have to keep in mind that B-schools are democratic in their nature of selection of applicants. There may be students of fine arts studying along with students with technical backgrounds in B-schools. The obvious solution here lies in teaching risk management integrated with education in macroeconomic issues, cultural geography and other human factors to make it understandable to students from all cultural and academic backgrounds. Yet, just teaching is not enough. One has to see how much of the teaching translates into action the moment the students step out of the classroom and into the boardroom.

RISK VS TRUST

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness… we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…” This line from Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” perhaps best describes the period before and after the financial downturn. The reason I bring this in is to hint that no crisis takes place without an element of human touch- greed, desire, ambition. We had everything working for us. The stock markets were booming, young executives fresh out of B-schools were dreaming of dazzling futures and there was room for more such wannabe executives to dream of more, more and more. At the heart of the problem lies this wonderful seduction of a better future or entrepreneurship. Come to think of it, doctors, art historians, cooks, farmers, practitioners of countless other professions are being lured into B-schools only with the hope of making it big. Suddenly everyone wanted to go to Wall Street and play risky games.

A close study of the global market shows that high-risk endeavours have been aptly rewarded. There is no essence of trust in the system. High-risk appetite is driven by greed which is further fed on the promise of skyrocketing salaries post B-school. A change in attitude must be brought about and the onus should fall on the B-schools. First, management schools across the world must aim to contribute to the better development of organizations and institutions and thus to serve society for the greater good. Trust is fundamental to both the functioning of markets and the efficient development of cooperation within organizations. How can business schools place the development of trust, the central importance of fairness, and the role of leadership in fostering trust at the core of their activities? The instability of the markets, the destruction of wealth, the unfortunate but all too real cases of fraud, abuse and perceived unfairness in organizations seriously undermine the morale of employees, shareholders and investors and their confidence in markets and business firms.

Hence, one major task that confronts business schools today consists in weaving the building of trust into business education. Most business schools are singularly well positioned to introduce innovations. Advances in sociology, anthropology, psychology, socio-economics, experimental economics and philosophy offer interesting avenues for research and teaching on the interfaces between cooperation, fairness and trust. Business is embedded in society. Business education should stress this embedment and its consequences for managers. For B-schools, there is just one lesson: reorient themselves as institution builders in knowledge-based economies with emphasis on trust to be better able to bring back public confidence in markets and organizations.