My first brush with management studies was in 1970 when I took an optional course of production management as part of my final year mechanical engineering course selection. Thereafter, I had the opportunity to complete post-graduate and doctoral programs in industrial engineering and industrial management. Over the last 44 years, it has been my practice to keep in touch with the management disciplines as taught and as practiced. As an engineer who pursued management studies, I was variously intrigued, fascinated and circumspect, time to time, about the glamorous attraction of the management studies that tempted several thousands of engineers to branch off into management. The emergence of premium schools of business such as the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) only fueled the trend. The more established premium schools of engineering, technology and science such as the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) had to follow suit by establishing their own in-house departments or schools of business.
Unlike engineering, management studies have remained largely static over the last four decades. While more nuances may have come about, and while other disciplines such as mathematics, statistics, economics, sociology, psychology, and information technology may have enriched management, there have been no new disciplines that have emerged out of management. Even Porter’s theories of competitive strategy and competitive advantage (of the 1980s) made for compelling reading but elusive application. Overall, over the last four decades management studies helped graduates improve their conceptual, analytical and communication skills and leapfrog in their careers, leveraging their institutional moorings. With mushrooming of management studies and the increasing need for companies to secure operational advantage rather than strategic advantage, management studies need to move from the (now threatened) vantage position of prescriptive studies to a (future secure) position that would be more value generating and value sustaining. This blog post discusses a few options, some merely extensional and some truly transformational.
Art, science, skill
For too long, the debate on management focused on whether it is an art or science; the former view because of the strong people element in management and the latter view because of the strong quantitative element inherent in performance. Neither is wholly right or wrong but what is more relevant is that management needs to be like anything else - a profession of skill. There is an oft repeated criticism that the Indian educational system focuses too much on information and theory and too little on knowledge and application. As a result, there is a strident view that the workforce is qualified but not knowledgeable and where it is knowledgeable it is not skilled. One of the concerns on ‘Make in India’ reaching its full potential relates to the skill deficit arising out of the Indian educational system. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s very first exhortation has, therefore, been that India must focus on 3 S’s of skill, scale and speed. On these, a common view could be that individual efforts are required for skill development and management efforts are needed to achieve scale and speed. In a distorted view of this, managers tend to believe that only the employees at the bottom of the organizational pyramid need to be skilled while the higher levels need to be only well versed in managerial processes and focused on others’ outcomes than on their own contributions.
Historically, organizations have looked at skill only from a workman perspective and even categorized workmen as unskilled, semi-skilled, skilled and highly skilled. The fact of the matter is that everyone needs to be skilled; whether one is a material handler, forklift operator or machinist. It is only that different types of skills are required for different roles. As understood from serious incidents of quality, compliance or safety, lack of skill even at the lowest levels can cause serious dislocations or disruptions. Given this perspective, it would be an even greater organizational distortion to conceptualize that skills are required at frontline levels and higher levels need only capabilities of management and leadership, classified as art or science. Management and leadership must move out of the exotic domains of visioning, strategizing and performance management and concentrate equally on individual contributions that are commensurately and consummately skilled. The synergistic arithmetic of organizations has two components; individual and team based. Managers and leaders are also governed by similar value arithmetic. There are two approaches to achieve this in a phased manner. The first is by redefining management curricula. The second is by making management studies completely vocational, and skill based.
Specialization and customization
A logical way to go is to increase the extent of specialization and customization. Specializations such as production, operations, marketing, finance, human resources etc., have always been there. The next frontiers of specialization must be three dimensional. The first dimension must be on specific industry orientation. There is no point in letting management studies remain generic and prescriptive. The least that can be done is to customize studies to industries, which will retain the basic scientific and technological foundations of one’s professional undergraduate studies. One may envisage at least 50 such industry specializations to start with. The second dimension must be on converting themes into subjects. Fashionable topics such as visioning, integration, diversification, costing, execution, self-realization and self-actualization which are nothing more than sections or chapters currently must be developed into holistic subjects. The third dimension must be on focusing on management for differentiated national cultures. Setting up and running industries or businesses could be significantly different across nations, and customization would help in making management graduates better.
The above is based on the requirement that management studies must not remain as generic studies as they now are. Two years is a long time in one’s educational career, especially as one gets closer to the career doorstep. By remaining generic, management studies not only make students unlearn their hard-learnt technical competencies but also make them managers of others’ competencies rather than contributors of their own intellectual might. Today’s generation has the opportunity to learn from diverse sources from the childhood days and it does not require a management capstone course to acquire soft skills. In fact, soft skills, including conceptual, analytical and communication skills, must be integrated from the basic school curricula stage. Management courses by becoming more specialized and customized will become more relevant to the industry. Possibly, educational institutions could be averse to such specialization as there could be uncertainty in securing high student intake. Specialized and customized management courses, not unnaturally, would require early career planning by the students (and their families who have a say over the career choices of students in the Indian context!).
Indian Institutes of Vocational Management (IIVMs)
Vocational courses are those that are directly deployable onto a work situation by teaching and developing work related skills. Industrial Training Institutes (ITIs) with their technician courses are typical providers of vocational studies. Even at a higher level, with reference to scientific and engineering studies, it is commonly understood in all engineering institutions that while class room teaching is essential and inevitable science is best learnt in laboratories and technology is best appreciated in workshops. Not only that, class room education is embedded with problem solving to illustrate and imbibe the theoretical principles. In contrast, management studies, despite the gallant efforts to bring in the case study approach and occasional industry guest lectures, remain theoretical and class room laden. In addition, the inevitability of reducing complex real world issues to manageable assignments leaves the students quite distanced from the complex realities. Added to this, the convenient management principle of holding someone else accountable and responsible for elemental projects makes management studies even more superficial. The earlier recommended approach of specialization and customization in subjects, industries and cultures is the first foundational step to make management vocational.
To institutionalize vocational management studies, it would be necessary to establish a string of Indian Institutes of Vocational Management (IIVMs). The existing management institutes may be given options to convert themselves into IIVMs or establish adjunct IIVMs. Vocational management studies must have five essential components. The first is that an equal distribution of pedagogy between classroom and workplace must prevail. If it is a one year program, six months must be in class room and six months in a workplace, and in the case of a two year program, one year each in classroom and workplace. The second is that project work is not a surrogate for real time work experience. If there exist 12 courses in the theoretical curriculum, there must be 12 projects, each reflecting the main theme of each of the subjects. The third is that the faculty must comprise an equal number of fulltime academic faculty and visiting workplace managers and leaders. The fourth is that the curriculum should be managed and students’ performance evaluated by an academic board of both in-house faculty and industry experts. The fifth is that the vocational management institutes should run off-campus management programs aggressively on the lines of Birla Institute of Technology & Science (BITS), Pilani. These five principles can transform the way management courses are conceptualized and run as truly application oriented vocational programs. This, of course, requires close collaboration between industries and IIVMs. The exciting opportunity of next generation management - vocational management - is well worth the effort to overcome challenges of collaboration.
Posted by Dr CB Rao on October 22, 2014