I believe one of the good things that will come out of this economic crisis will be that American companies will strive to be nimbler and more adaptive to change. A recent article in the Business section of the New York Times cited two studies done in 1959 by the Ford and Carnegie Foundations concluding that American business schools were “ too vocational and narrow in their approach to the subject matter”. Fast forward about 50 years later and the Graduate School of Business at Stanford concluded roughly the same thing as they set about to make sweeping changes to their MBA program. It appears they have come to the conclusion that “critical and analytical thinking” is now on a par with “number crunching” for aspiring Stanford MBA’s.
My theory as to why this took so long, why critical thinking and innovation took so long to make its way into mainstream business orthodoxy, emerges from the old axiom “a high tide raises all boats”. A robust economy forgives many sins. In a boom environment, not rocking the boat is often a more important skill for moving forward than making a better one. Just ask any senior manager at Ford and GM or any compliance executive at A.I.G.
It’s not like we haven’t had plenty of innovators come out of academia over the last 20 years. However, many of our most forward thinking business innovators usually come from outside of the mainstream business establishment. They succeed despite the prevailing models for doing things, not because of them. Many of them where outsiders, geeks and dropouts, Steve Jobs, Michael Dell and Bill Gates are just a few high profile examples of incredibly successful business people who never graduated from business school. In fact they didn’t graduate from college at all.
Part of what happens when so much disruptive change occurs, when the folly in the accepted way of doing things is so brutally revealed, often to devastating effect, is that we, individually and collectively, begin questioning what is not working and why. A kind of “critical and analytical” evaluation of reality is thrust upon us in the name of survival. We are forced to discard what no longer works, innovate new business models and in the process, redefine what is possible.
It is a very encouraging sign when our universities and corporate institutions begin to recognize that creativity, critical thinking and ethics belong in a business curriculum as well as the Boardroom, and that these skills are also good for business.