Time for a new school of thought

The business world is full of mass produced clones making the same mistakes and needs to be shaken up from its own institutional foundations.

People walk through Canary Wharf, London's financial district November 11, 2008.    REUTERS/Kieran Doherty    (BRITAIN)
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We've been brainwashed. You, me, all of us. No, I'm not having an Orwellian moment. It's just that for more years than we can remember, we have been listening to business gurus going on about strategies and new business concepts. We've read the success stories of captains of industry, managers of the year (even of the decade), business titans and almost anyone awarded a glorified title by a business newspaper or magazine.

We've also rehearsed business models and management theories, and enrolled in MBA and other post-graduate programmes where we learnt to draw matrices and use fancy programmable calculators. Having done all of this and plenty more, we are collectively suffering what psychologists call a "follower-induced psychosis". Look around the business world today and you can reach only one conclusion: we're all identical clones shovelled out by the bucket loads by the business schools.

We have been mass-produced, standardised, made homogenous, identical. All the same. Arguably, thanks for this in some ways goes to Henry Ford, who introduced mass production for cars. Aldous Huxley, writing in Brave New World, even named the dating system after him, referring to it as "In the Year of Our Ford". Mass production changed the business world. Economies of scale were introduced as a key commercial variable to reach that lodestone of productivity and efficiency. And standardisation made it all the more achievable.

It was thus only a short leap to begin to see that standardisation and mass production were the preferred way to produce future business leaders and financial industry professionals. But the virtues of standardisation have a counter phenomenon: people who think the same way and use the same sources of information also end up making the same mistakes. Moreover, that cookie-cutter approach has stifled our ability to think creatively. Despite the cliched mantra of the 1990s to "think outside the box", did anyone mean it?

And how many actually followed the exhortation to do so? Far better to stay inside the box and keep your head down. Sure, there was some innovation in management, but this was more in the way of tinkering around the edge than anything radically paradigm changing. Not too long ago, a career in business involved, foremost, a period of apprenticeship. You found out about business by working alongside veterans.

In the process, a newcomer would pick up tips about the importance of relationships between the company and its clients and suppliers. He or she would come to appreciate why things are done in the way they are done through real-life examples and in the process see and appreciate the rationale behind practices. People become immersed in the practical world of business. In contrast, today we think we can create young businessmen and women by subjecting them to the theoretical study of commerce in the isolation of the classroom. Then, we unleash them on businesses with their youthful hubris unchecked.

They come without experience but with enthusiasm for tearing down the old and rebuilding commerce into models learnt at school. Indeed, business school often reinforces the notion among new MBAs that they know it all, know better than the veterans who have been working in the industry for a couple of dozen years. In fact, a short course in humility wouldn't be wasted at Harvard, Columbia, Insead and elsewhere.

And if the financial and economic crisis has taught us anything, it is that we desperately need change. Business and commerce will continue to see more business school graduates fill their ranks. Particularly as retrenchment in the financial services industry pushes more people to ride out the storm by enrolling in these institutions. So management education must change. As a first step we need to recognise our clone thinking. Then, we need to reach deep inside and start to formulate a new language of business that is based on principles of economic justice.

Also, we must ask ourselves whether a greater level of diversity in the business world would have acted as a safeguard that might have prevented the global meltdown. Has the globalised business culture, with its emphasis on economies of scale, worsened what might have been a relatively small event of defaults on mortgages into a global crisis of hitherto unimaginable proportions? If we hadn't been cloned so well, the world probably wouldn't have seen the exponential growth it experienced in the past decade.

Yet, it must just as much be admitted that growth of that kind comes at a cost. Still, if today you ask the glum faces around town if they would be content instead with slower and sustainable growth, you know what the answer would be. I do too. And that is the shame of it all. Rehan Khan is a senior executive at a development company in the UAE