Blogging Alone: How the Social Media Disconnect Will Affect Business Schools

The ubiquity of social media reveals an interesting irony: Though we are more connected than ever before, loneliness is on the rise, and more people report they have no one to talk to, according to a number of research studies. Apparently, having a few real world friends is superior to having a million Facebook friends, which drives home the idea that Facebook is about quantity and not quality. Indeed, the purpose of Facebook is to broadcast, display and report ourselves to our wide world of “friends.” While there is nothing wrong with this new approach, it makes the old-fashioned method of sharing your thoughts with a few close friends seem increasingly antiquated.

For all the good social media brings, a generally unmentioned corollary is the fact that the more someone posts or tweets, the less time he or she has to read, experience or listen. Time is a limited resource. People must choose how to spend their time, and increasingly the choice is to reflect through social media — especially on oneself or one’s experiences — and as a result people are losing their ability to listen and engage others.

Because this dynamic affects human interactions and society, it will affect business schools. I see it exacerbating the existing trend of students coming to school with higher test scores but having a growing need for the development of emotional intelligence and social graces. Good grades alone don’t guarantee jobs. In today’s globally competitive environment, students must also develop social skills—especially the ability to interact, collaborate, and communicate. Texting is not the solution.

As a consequence, schools need to address this student deficiency in the curriculum. Doing so will require more than offering isolated non-credit seminars and Toastmasters groups. In my experience, it is highly effective for programs to emphasize hands-on learning activities and team-based projects. My school, for example, offers a variety of MBA and undergraduate consulting projects with companies and an MBA capstone simulation in which students are a firm’s executive team. The experiences take students out of their comfort zone, requiring them not only to use new skills from class, but also to address the concerns of a real Board of Directors. This helps students understand how it is possible to ace tests and fail interviews.

In some respects, a focus on soft skills is contrary to the traditional business school emphasis on mastery of a set of analytic tools and skills — i.e. foundational courses, specialized electives, and knowledge of certain facts. Today’s workplaces, however, require young people to be able to make sound judgments.  Yet, we educate students in a system that emphasizes standardized test results above all else – but that’s another blog entry entirely.

Beyond its influence on interpersonal skills and extroversion, social media may provoke other interesting effects. In the past, relationships forged between students and professors have fueled philanthropy and loyalty to alma mater.  Such close relationships are beneficial in other ways, too, as a recent study suggests that having a mentor in college leads to more engagement by students in their future careers. But if students continue to disengage from face-to-face interactions as they spend more time online, such relationships will occur less often. And faculty members, seeking to protect time for research, may prefer the result. For universities, the problem will not become apparent until years in the future. It will be a major issue for public universities, which have more students in the classroom and less state support to pay for their education.

In some cases, students’ reliance on technology and media will lead them to expect the same instantaneous response from faculty as from Siri or the customer service staff at an Apple Store. They will be primed to think it is a wise idea to email the CEO, ask for a raise for everyone, and copy much of the company workforce.  Already, Internet access in the classroom allows students to publicly “fact-check” professors — that is, when they are not showing their boredom by surfing the web. Professors need to spend time dispelling a student’s incorrect Googled notion instead of discussing the subject matter. Furthermore, the exchanges embolden students to believe they know more than they really do. This tendency is elevated by beliefs that everything can be handled through multi-tasking.  I am sure that faculty will take students to task. At the same time, because student satisfaction is part of the data used in business school rankings, the discrepancy between students’ expectations and faculty views may play out in a way schools detest.

Before you conclude I’m just an old Luddite, know that I see much value in the changes brought by social media and recognize that we are not going back to the quaint old days. Our hyper-connectedness has many clear advantages. It is democratizing and has in many instances increased transparency. Social media channels are revolutionizing how business schools can engage with students, alumni, and other audiences. Now, instead of sending a quarterly magazine, monthly e-mail or annual report, schools can talk to their audience (or a selected segment) on a daily basis. This offers an incredible opportunity to mobilize support for campus events, mentoring programs, employment referrals, fundraising, and more. We would be foolish to ignore the technology that provides such opportunities.

But we must also recognize the importance of how we use our time. As technology becomes further integrated into our lives, it is not clear whether it is fundamentally good (improving efficiency and the quality of life) or fundamentally bad (we are becoming part of the Borg). Moreover, in a world where people blog alone, what will stop them from doing more things alone? If the secret to eternal life is being connected to a central processor (i.e., the Matrix), will evolving generations choose that fate over normal messy interactions with other people?

Business schools must prepare students for the onslaught of technology, while being blind to what technologies will do or enable in the future. This makes speed more important than ever in what we do in b-school. And it exposes the vulnerability inherent in our deliberative governance processes. Will business school see this shift in the human experience as an opportunity to train students to generate revenue or a societal matter that requires discussion and the exercise of social conscience? Stay tuned for an answer. It may surprise you.

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B-School Lessons from the Centennial of the Great War

Throughout 2014, the world will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. This anniversary will generate much thought about the war itself, as well as its causes, effects and implications for humanity. Just as there was much tumult among world powers in 1914, today’s higher education landscape is rapidly changing, with many potential implications for business school strategies, outcomes and success.

There are four primary dimensions of World War I that can be translated as a note of caution to today’s business school landscape:

1. Providing Outcomes in Demand

Governments had broad support around the time of the Great War — as long as they provided outcomes demanded by their citizens.Similarly, business education has been enormously popular because of the implicit general belief that it provides good economic outcomes.  However, as more schools have developed undergraduate and MBA degrees, and the alumni pool has grown, it is inevitable that the economic value of business degrees will decline on average.  Thus, as the cost of business education – including opportunity costs – continues to increase, average returns will decline and popularity may follow suit. In this environment, which appears to exist today, the B-schools that thrive will be those that continually adapt and provide students with in-demand business skills. The underlying lesson is that it is important to anticipate where the market is going, as well as to provide the outcomes it demands today.

2. (In)Effectiveness of Strategy

The strategies of both the Allied and Central powers in World War I were largely ineffective, leading to a stalemate that lasted from 1914 through 1918. Though each side employed new weapons and technologies, the effects were calamitous and ultimately unsuccessful, as neither side advanced and many died.

I frequently speak with students who wish to study and understand business strategy in order to prepare for the world of consulting and to develop the skills to be successful managers. They often underestimate the importance of knowing a business thoroughly and seek immediately to be in a position determining strategy.  However, strategies regularly play out differently from intention – especially when guided by little experience. To the extent that B-schools and business faculty increase their distance from the economy and industry, there will be greater variance in the success of their proposed strategies. Moreover, as long as B-school faculty focus much of their research on empirical analyses of the past, the disconnection with evolving markets will render research-generated studies inadequate. For this reason, B-schools should encourage research projects that combine data analysis and interactions with people. The lesson is that we must get out of the office to understand the relentlessly changing environment of business if we are to produce successful strategies.

3. Differentiation from the Crowd

Both the Allied and Central Powers implemented new technologies and weaponry, but their satisfaction with historic approaches contributed to the war’s stalemate. It was, in due part, America’s rapid adoption of new practices (automobiles, manufacturing methods, etc.) that reshaped the world economy, and prosecuted the war to a conclusion. In today’s higher education landscape, it seems every university aims to be the residential college of the future. However, as B-schools – including the very top ranked and “best” schools – show little discomfort with the order of things, we are vulnerable to disruption by new challengers. While I won’t venture a guess as to whom these challengers will be, or which will prevail, they will likely appear from sectors ignored or disrupted. And the winning solutions will be those preferred by the customers of business education – not the providers. The lesson is to be comfortable at your peril.

4. The Importance of Forward Thinking

The armistice signed on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918 ensured that the German people would suffer as a result of the aggression inflicted by their leaders. However, there was neither forward thinking nor adequate contemplation of the choices that a suffering people would feel impelled to make. As a result, two decades later, Europe, Asia and the wider world were rocked by devastation on a larger scale in World War II.

Today’s B-schools display less forethought than might be expected. An emphasis on generating revenue has created a situation in which some important outcomes – e.g. the integrity of graduates or faculty – receive little attention. Similarly, emphasis on lectures, theory, and classroom learning, even when facilitated by technology, means the vast majority of business students have little experience creating results. Fortunately, some schools have recognized this disparity and, in turn, have made experience-based learning central to their mission. Client-based consulting projects, fellowships, cooperative education programs, and case competitions are just a few examples of how students can gain practical hands-on business experience.  The lesson is the need to build experience into education so students are prepared for their careers.

As we reflect on the centennial of the Great War’s beginning, let’s hope that the parallels noted above for business schools are resolved by the 100th anniversary of the war’s end. There are many crucial lessons and areas of growth for B-schools, and these key learnings will generate much good for the future economy and provide meaningful lessons for tomorrow’s business students.

 

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A Salute to America’s Working People

Labor Day, the second bookend of the traditional summer season, is a national holiday that celebrates America’s workforce, the people whose blood and sweat have helped to build our country into a great nation. Holiday parades will feature members of organized labor marching down city streets to be recognized and applauded.

Today, the value of unions is increasingly being called into question, including by college professors in the classroom. Unions are seen as out of date and unnecessary; by some they are characterized as the source of all evil and the reason for every problem in the business world. Why are unions seen in such a negative light? The answer is complex. It is important for business students to understand the issue from both sides. On the one hand, unions have historically provided positive outcomes to members through collective bargaining agreements. Members earn higher wages and better benefits than similar nonunion workers. In the public sector, however, these superior union-negotiated health and retirement benefits can threaten the government’s fiscal health. This is being seen across the country as governments grapple with soaring pension liabilities and declining credit ratings. Additionally, union contracts include grievance procedures that reduce management’s ability to treat workers arbitrarily – such as firing someone without just cause.

Given the opportunity to enhance your wages, benefits, and job security through a union, one would think the normal sentiment of people to be, “Where do I sign up?” But that is not the case in the United States. Union membership has plummeted from its peak of 35 percent of the workforce in the 1950s, to today’s unionization level of about 11 percent. Employers, including leading business associations such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have opposed unions and many companies have adopted policies intended to forestall unionization. Various interest groups have attacked unions and encouraged states to roll back public employee bargaining rights or to pass “Right-to-Work” laws, which prohibit collective bargaining agreements from requiring workers to pay union dues.

It is not unusual for faculty in business schools and other university programs, such as economics and hospitality management, to suggest  that unions are “bad,” and give such reasons as unions reduce efficiency, inhibit change, restrict employers’ ability to manage the workforce, and even that unions are sometimes connected with organized crime (references to Jimmy Hoffa’s demise sometimes follow).

Union supporters point out that in recent years, ordinary workers have faced wage stagnation, while company bosses have received generous salaries and a growing list of perks unavailable to subordinates. Thomas Piketty’s book – Capital in the Twenty-First Century – has ignited a firestorm by suggesting that increasing inequality threatens society. Despite the growing inequality, unions have failed to generate political support to change labor laws in ways that would help workers and promote more equality. I’ve always found this interesting. I believe that it is connected with the general desire of Americans to support entrepreneurship and innovation. But why do workers support a theoretical view over a pragmatic approach that would put more money in their pockets?

My purpose in this entry is not to answer the question. There are hundreds of studies that have looked at the issues associated with unions and their effects. Many show that outcomes vary across public and private sectors and nations. In coming years, more studies will be cited as governments, politicians, and activists continue to debate ways to reduce costs in the public sector. The question will continue to be complex and controversial.

Instead, on this Labor Day holiday, I humbly ask readers to reflect on the collective efforts of working people across the nation to build our country, to create profits and successful projects for their employers, and to earn a decent living. Indeed, I believe that across the world, in every nation, people show a willingness to work in order to earn a decent living. In other blog entries, I’ve mentioned the necessity of business school’s to excel in their job placement efforts. We must emphasize placement because an education is irrelevant if it does not provide an opportunity to earn a living. This view is received positively by parents and students, and, at my school, it is driven by our overriding concern to make future generations better off. Carrying out this value provides what our students require – and what people desire around the world.

This brings me to a quote from legendary Pittsburgh Steelers coach Chuck Noll, which I believe is relevant to business students and schools on Labor Day. “Champions are champions,” he said, “not because they do extraordinary things but because they do the ordinary things better than anyone else.” This speaks to the value of taking pride in hard work and having the will to succeed — two values that were shared by the workers whose labors helped mold the United States into a world power. 

As much as the news media seeks to point out instances in which working people have failed or fallen short, time and again I have seen the good created by hard-working people. They don’t seek glory or recognition beyond knowing they have done commendable work. They display values that some say have vanished. The lesson is that business schools must ensure students get a dose of those values so that they will practice them and understand that most workers strive to do the same.

Thank you to all the workers, yesterday and today, who have contributed to the greatness of our nation.

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