Many business founders have encyclopedic knowledge about how their organizations work, as well as how to gain and to retain profitable customers. Why? Founders have probably either designed or done all of the major tasks at one time or another and may have played a role in attracting almost all of the key customers. Doing so was just part of what was required for their businesses to succeed.
When it comes time for founders to replace themselves, one of their most difficult challenges is finding someone with the right experience. Starting new employees in entry-level jobs and rotating them through as many other kinds of jobs as possible can help, but it’s a slow process and most ambitious people don’t want to invest the required time and effort.
By contrast, business education originally focused on teaching just a few skills such as accounting, quantitative analysis, and what was then called industrial organization businessmantalk.com. Such skills were often helpful for understanding how a business was performing, as well as for identifying and assessing alternatives.
A key drawback of this educational approach was that the overall perspective of a business founder couldn’t be gained from learning just these skills. What could be done instead?
In response, business schools began to think about ways that people could much more rapidly add relevant experience. One method of accelerated learning emerged that has continued to be important to this day: Document case studies of actual business decisions, ask learners to analyze the situations, and assign them the tasks of identifying and choosing what to do. When the learners are ready, engage them in Socratic dialogues about the case and their conclusions.
It was hoped that by grappling with these difficult challenges learners could gain opportunities in just a few months to consider many more important decisions than they might normally be involved in over several decades. Would mature business judgments be far behind?
When learners had to explain and defend their choices orally and in writing, they also gained some experience of what it is like to operate in an organization. In addition, learners benefited from objective reactions to their views. With such perspectives, business learners could potentially avoid some future mistakes by improving on their ways of thinking and deciding.
The concept of using case studies for learning through Socratic dialogues was originally drawn from how Harvard Law School taught about appellate-level judicial opinions. The business cases subsequently written at Harvard Business School soon became the backbone of many curricula for graduate-level business programs at many highly regarded universities. Ways of writing and using such cases began to proliferate in useful ways.
Wise educators also realized that experience still provided some lessons that just studying cases couldn’t. As a result, business educators encouraged learners to gain some business experience before trying to add more advanced management skills in classroom experiences. Most business schools also required students to work on real-life projects for existing businesses from time to time, to provide more relevant learning.
A few business educators also realized that skill development needed to be closely aligned with a theoretical understanding of what the overall organization needed to accomplish. From teaching such insights, the business disciplines of management and corporate strategy emerged.
As a countertrend, more and more business subjects became specialized, so that less and less of any learning was focused on gaining a founder’s kind of perspective and knowledge. To respond, evening and online business school programs were developed for mid-career businesspeople to flesh out whatever it is that they hadn’t yet learned that was needed to do their jobs better… and to prepare them for taking on bigger responsibilities, especially in general management.
Instead, many businesspeople in the last two decades decided to bypass formal education and simply worked with coaches who had such knowledge and asked for practical advice about their most pressing concerns and issues.
Clearly, all these ways of learning more about business have their good points. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if they could all be combined?
That hope isn’t as far-fetched as it might seem. Some of today’s leading business scholars are as drawn to gaining insights into how others can learn more about business as they are to obtaining more knowledge about business for themselves.
Whenever I think of combining new knowledge with better learning for businesspeople, I’m reminded of a friend who is a business professor. While many people imagine all professors as being ivory tower types, he’s just as likely to be seen scoring a goal or earning an assist for his ice hockey team as he is to be found reading in the library.
He applies more teaching methods than most other business professors do: In addition to online teaching that emphasizes helping business practitioners to learn and to apply theory, he is highly effective in a bricks-and-mortar classroom setting while leading many sections of management accounting classes for BBA and MBA candidates at a highly esteemed North American business school.