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.