Bigger is better mantra can reap dividends

Grandes écoles system must adapt and make a virtue of its size

Is small really beautiful in business education? In 1973, E.F. Schumacher coined the phrase “small is beautiful”. For the first time, the role of large, influential players in the economy was questioned.

The “bigger is better” mantra that the British economist sought to break is still one many attach to the French management education system. The grandes écoles, an education system dreamt up by Napoleon, is known for its large classes and classical academic education. Some believe these schools serve either to produce cohorts of public administrators (generally the engineering schools) or managers for the biggest companies (business schools).

In the past, this logic of mass answered perfectly the technical or managerial needs of large organisations. Teaching methods seldom stressed the notion of entrepreneurship. As a result, the contributions that these institutions have made to society is far removed from today’s economic issues of globalisation.

The model for these schools was elitist, concerning only a privileged minority. In a French business world this worked well, but not any more.

Today, both the international education market and multinational companies no longer need the traditional managers produced by the grandes écoles but instead want business graduates with proved initiative and a desire to innovate. French schools can no longer rest on their laurels. Even the French have recognised that their business schools form a slice of society in need of reform. That reform is now in the pipeline, but will the grandes écoles adapt to the needs of today’s companies and recruiters?

Although the Grande Ecole Master in Management programmes are well ranked internationally, they are not known for being masters of diversity. Diversity is one of the keys to entrepreneurship. If all management graduates were the same, employers would be hard pressed to gain a competitive edge from recruitment. It follows then that French schools need to relinquish a little of the classical approach that has in the past served them well for recruitment, but less so for course delivery and learning outcomes. If not, they may fall behind in the innovation stakes.

With a little thought, the grandes écoles can introduce diversity into their programmes because being bigger actually fosters a better chance of introducing diversity. The typically large cohorts mean that someone with an atypical profile is more likely to find others who harbour the same vision. With such large classes, it only requires a small group of students keen on a particular study path for that option to be added. Moreover, the more diverse the student population, the easier it is for organisations to find the fit and originality they crave.

As far as teaching entrepreneurship is concerned, it is highly debatable whether bolting classes on to a curriculum makes any difference. But, while a school cannot teach a taste for risk-taking and self-sacrifice that often awaits company creators, it can try to engender an entrepreneurial spirit through a greater openness in subjects and approach. If theory can then be put into business practice via a school’s incubator, this can help break the mould of management graduates.

Diversity is also a question of access to education and central to this is the funding available to students. For those from modest backgrounds, time spent during their programme launching a company is often seen as a low-income path compared with salaried internships. Financial aid provides a safety net that allows students to let their entrepreneurial abilities soar. In offering funding to poorer students, the grandes écoles can encourage student diversity. Size is once again a virtue – large intakes mean large numbers of alumni willing to make donations.

Today’s multinationals need managers with initiative and an entrepreneurial outlook. If the grandes écoles system is to survive and thrive it must adapt and make a virtue of its size.

The steps outlined will help to change a system viewed by many as excellent academically but lacking in its nurturing of talent and entrepreneurial initiative.

Jean Charroin is vice-dean, Audencia Nantes School of Management, France

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