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Rethinking Business Education

Updated 24 Jun, 2020 02:30pm
How we can breathe new life into Pakistan's MBA programs.

Business schools in the US started to become popular at the beginning of the 20th century. However, in Pakistan (like many other countries) business schools started to appear in the 1950s and it was as late as 1984 that the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) was founded.

Nevertheless, ever since, students in search of successful careers have been flocking to business schools across the country; business schools became the smart short-cut to a job that pays in six figures or the pathway to being counted as among the next generation of leaders.

Yet, the reality is that apart from a few, most business schools in Pakistan have failed to live up to the promised hype, and blue chip employers are left fretting over the quality of graduates in the country. Business schools have long taught students the importance of identifying and understanding customer needs. Perhaps they should pay attention to what they are teaching and revisit their strategy and approach to preparing graduates.

Current MBA programmes in Pakistan do not adequately prepare students for 21st century careers. A major reason is the narrow focus on theory and memorisation, rather than on the application of concepts and the development of skills. According to management expert, academic and author, Henry Mintzberg:

“Management, unlike other fields of study, can't be learned exclusively in a classroom environment, because management is not a theory or a profession, it's a practice. So, the only way to learn management is to practice it in real settings. You can't learn to become a manager, or leader, by sitting in a classroom attending lectures”.

Yet, the complete opposite is happening in Pakistan.

Most universities have a lecture-based approach. Their assessments are aimed to test memory and not learning. They force uninspiring texts on students and push them to memorise and then regurgitate them in their exams. First as a student and now as a teacher, I have seen students obsess over the much-prized 4.0 GPA. They believe that good grades are a sure fire way of securing lucrative jobs. They memorise every concept in the book without understanding much of it.

The reality is that students do not apply any of those concepts or meet a real customer to understand their pain points. They never make an advertisement or write copy for a campaign. They never interact or negotiate with a supplier and or face ethical conundrums. The absence of local references further exacerbates the issue and students are forced to rely on examples of foreign businesses. A better alternative is to engage students in case studies about local businesses. Instead of requiring definition, ask students to find solutions to open-ended problems – and if the subject allows, to build prototypes of the solution.

Students should be encouraged to develop skills and test them though projects, internships, and most importantly by building or joining a start-up. In this way, they will be able to apply the concepts and theories they have learnt in the classroom. For example, for their start-up, they could develop a product, create an ad campaign or even hire a team member – experiences denied to them in the classroom.

When Harvard Business School initiated an overhaul of its flagship MBA programme on its 100th anniversary, the Dean promised “bold, brave things”. With Covid-19 disrupting education, and business schools failing to deliver on their promise, now is the right time to respond to these challenges. We need to find ways to create a great learning experience online. And business education in Pakistan, like the Harvard Business School, will need to embark on "bold, brave things" to stay relevant.

Salman Ahmad is Co-Founder and Innovation Lead at Peshawar 2.0, and a faculty member at Edwardes College Peshawar where he teaches Human Resource Management, and Innovation and Entrepreneurship. He tweets at @SalmanAhmad.