The Past Is Not The Future

Charles Handy

Charles Handy has moved through careers as an oil executive, a business school professor and BBC broadcasting and is widely acknowledged as a world leader in management thinking. His prolific authorship includes books which are standard works on bookshelves worldwide, including his memoir, Myself and Other More Important Matters, as well as The Elephant and the Flea, and The Empty Raincoat. His new book, The Second Curve will be published in March 2015. His concern for society and individuals as the world faces the changes that technology, demography and economics bring, has been awarded with a dozen doctorates or fellowships, numerous prizes, and a CBE.

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Business schools – and the businesses they serve – need to discover a “second curve” if they are to survive and prosper. By Charles Handy

When I last spoke to the EFMD conference in 1974 my talk reflected my own personal dilemma. I was at the time the Director of the MBA Programme at the London Business School (although it was then technically still called an MSc because London University did not recognise the MBA as a graduate degree).

I found myself presiding over a programme that I could not fully believe in but was unable to change.

I had soon realised that there are limits to how much you can teach about the practice of management in a classroom. I, along with all my colleagues, had gone through American business schools and had adopted their classroom-based models as the prototypes for ours.

For some reason we did not look to our own examples of other professional schools – architecture, law, medicine or accounting – all of which combined classroom instruction with a form of tutored apprenticeship. It became clear to me then that the MBA more accurately stood for Master of Business Analysis.

There is nothing wrong in that so far as it goes. The problem was that it did not go far enough. We were, in effect, training consultants not managers. And as future consultants, the best of our students were rapidly picked up by consulting firms and investment banks. That was not, I felt, what we were there for.

We also followed the American model along with the Ford and Carnegie Reports and anchored our school in the University of London. I had naively though that this would allow me to import occasional teachers from their faculties, such as those of philosophy, law and political theory as well as history and science, because I believed that business analysis needed to be enriched by other disciplines to provide a more rounded preparation for a management role.

I soon discovered, however, that the traditional faculties of the university regarded us as a cuckoo in their nest and wanted nothing to do with us. Nor did my own colleagues welcome the thoughts of any such intrusions. What we did import, alas, was the university ethos, one that valued published research more than teaching ability for career promotion. The result was a school that was effectively a collection of subject silos and colleagues who were pushed to teach subjects rather than students.

One of the problems was that almost all of my colleagues were pure academics. They had never had to put their knowledge to work in businesses or any other organisation.

But knowing What does not automatically guarantee knowing How, let alone knowing Why.

In desperation I found myself running workshops in communication skills and listening exercises. But these were inadequate sops in what I saw as a wrongly focused system. I worried that we were turning loose clever but unskilled graduates into a world that desperately needed effective leaders and managers.

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