Soapbox

December 15, 2013 11:12 pm

Business education and public policy must connect

In time business and civil society will see that the former models of the world no longer work

 If business schools are to teach the next generation of business leaders with a view to making a difference, there has to be a meeting of minds, a nexus, between business schools and government policy makers, a connection that has yet to be experienced on any significant scale in business education.

We spend significant amounts of time educating the current generation on the best business practices. Recently, the term “sustainable” has become prominent in almost every academic discipline associated with the study of business, as business education has attempted to respond to the apparent increase in sensitivity to ethics and sustainability issues. Nonetheless, we are still some way from creating that synergy between business and policy.

One of the key reasons for this traditional separation is the way in which careers in business and politics tend to be kept apart – witness the continued existence of schools for business and schools for public policy.

In France, for example, SciencesPo, has a reputation for supplying the political sphere with renowned alumni. Business schools around the world have done the same, building generations of businessmen and women to lead the corporate world. Although such efforts may have established an identity for the schools, they have also unintentionally separated professional classes.

Recently business schools have argued for the introduction of interdisciplinary courses. Various intellectual concepts have been coined such as “capstone project”, “action project” and “live case study” in an attempt to live up to the expectations of the academic industry, which wants to look as if it is moving faster than it actually is. In fact business education remains trapped in the same business model that has been around for the past 30 years. And although there have been minor structural advances, the signs of the collapse of this model are becoming visible.

Perhaps along the way, business schools have missed an opportunity to ensure a functional connection between the education on offer and public policy. For example business schools are still unsure how the private and public sectors can work together – relying on the proliferation of NGOs to close that gap. But the efforts of NGOs are not enough and could in fact be seen as condoning the gap, between business schools and public policy.

But business modelling and the business mindset can be brought into public policy. Governments and their stakeholders can be viewed as elements of a system and the degree of power and influence associated with each element of that system can be analysed.

Business school students have the language needed to understand complex problems, but they spend large portions of their studies looking at best practices and models that inevitably recall a world of the past, rather than one that hints at glimpses of the future. Such a focus creates a significant challenge for business school students, who are forced to cope with the gap between their expectations of business and the reality after graduation.

In contrast, the careers of public servants are characterised by controlled (un) certainty, supported by mechanisms of old-school power dynamics. These dynamics permeate activities, creating a culture in which simplicity is an acceptable way to escape the complex questions. Inevitably, such a culture results in complacency and inefficiency.

However, business schools can help the public sector by creating a dialogue that can help to navigate the lack of consensus and the partisan views. All that is needed is to trigger the right conversations and a context of co-operation, where private and public spheres are part of the same DNA.

In the future, business and civil society will be forced to recognise that the previous models of the world no longer work. There will be a move to look for areas where the organisational configurations that emerge from the synergy between business and policy can be established. We are already witnessing this when we see the growing numbers of graduates who are joining the Clinton and Gates Foundations.

We can prepare our current students for careers in areas that as yet they are unaware of and in fact may not necessarily master – but nonetheless are areas that reflect society’s move towards a world of great inclusion.

The author is an associate professor of business and economics at Grenoble Ecole de Management, an instructor at Harvard Extension School and a senior associate at the University of Cambridge, CPSL.

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