Can MBA programs handle ambiguity?
“Der Krieg ist das Gebiet der Ungewißheit; drei Vierteile derjenigen Dinge, worauf das Handeln im Kriege gebaut wird, liegen im Nebel einer mehr oder weniger großen Ungewißheit. Her ist es also zuerst, wo ein feiner, durchdringender Verstand in Anspruch genommen wird, um mit dem Takte seines Urteils die Wahrheit herauszufühlen.” - Von Clausewitz, On War
(War is a zone of uncertainty; about three quarters of the things on which action in war is based on are wrapped up in a fog of uncertainty. Here is where a fine, penetrating mind, one with good judgment to figure out truth is needed the most.)
The notion that war is a good analogy for business has gone in and out of style over the last century. But decision-making in business—as in war—is undeniably shrouded in a fog of uncertainty and ambiguity.
Sadly, in most business education, the topic of uncertainty is only given lip service and ambiguity is completely ignored. Moreover, the pedagogy of business education may actually be teaching all the wrong lessons.
Helping students to understand how to cope with the ambiguity and uncertainty that will inevitably surround them as leaders should be the goal of all business school professors. But instead, we discuss case studies that have “right answers”; we teach from textbooks and administer exams on mathematical models with defined datasets; we require students to “turn off the Internet” when they are in the classroom because we don’t want them distracted by the real world. We do everything we can to limit the issues that can be discussed to our own academic disciplines.
There are lots of reasons that modern education systems reject any hints of uncertainty or ambiguity in their world, including: accreditation, school rankings, teacher ratings and, simply, the nature of big bureaucracies.
A guild system is the way that education works today. There was a time when guilds ruled the business world. Groups of incumbent business people in an attempt to increase their own profits and remove the threat of new entrants into their businesses legislated that all companies of a similar ilk do everything the same way and changes were only possible with the permission of the most powerful participants in the guilds. And damningly, this was all done under the guise of protecting customers from charlatans.
Accreditation and rankings ensure that no school can exhibit too much innovative behavior. Faculty members from competing schools carry out accreditation reviews with a self-interest in the status-quo. School rankings (determined by a set of criteria often designed by journalists who buy into what incumbents tell them) enforce a similar uniformity.
Teachers vie for good teacher ratings, which are best achieved through a honed delivery of lectures and discussions. The more times you’ve done exactly the same thing as a professor, the more likely you are to achieve your desired result: a stage-like performance without a loss for words. A professor’s holy grail is to get students to laugh, cry, and even learn at precisely prescribed moments. That has become our definition of good teaching – and it results in stellar teacher ratings. But this outcome generally requires that no new or unexpected or, heaven forbid, unanswerable questions are brought into the classroom.
Egos, evaluations, and organizational imperatives all work against training students in dealing with ambiguity. Any hint of uncertainty in the education process makes students, teachers, administrators, and accreditors uncomfortable. It just feels more like good education when everything about the process is predictable and measurable. Everyone in the system buys into the ideal of a good education “factory.”
Sadly, this factory spits students out into workplace environments that are less like a factory—less predictable and uniform—than any since the days of the hunter-gatherers. The more we have “tamed” our work environment and created machines to do the predictable and routine work for us, the more need there is for workplace leaders who can deal with—and even create—the unexpected.
Employers of newly minted students have been complaining about the inability of educational institutions to produce “work ready” managers and leaders for decades now. But little has been done to bring about any serious kind of change in formal education systems during that time. We still dole out “learning” in almost the same way our grandparents received it. So, businesses take on the brunt of training their new employees in the way the world really works because the ivory tower has never been able to do it well—and is arguably worse at it now than ever before in history.
CEOs around the globe say that they want more from business programs and business graduates. And business schools say they want to better meet employers’ needs. But structural impediments obstruct any easy paths to teaching about uncertainty and ambiguity. The biggest question on my mind these days is: how can a school design cutting-edge, innovative programs and educational systems for training the minds of future leaders to thrive in the real—usually foggy—world of twenty-first century business?