Educating for uncertainty

Business schools have always been educational pioneers, but new times bring new challenges – so now they must do it all over again

By Charles Handy 30 January 2019

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Fifty-one years ago I returned from America to join the fledgling London Graduate School of Business (now London Business School), then just two years old and midway through its first MSc programme. A business school then was an American import, largely unknown in Europe. A friend, hearing that I was joining the school, wondered why I wanted to teach typing and shorthand, assuming that the school was another name for a secretarial college.

Fifty years on there are well over 100 graduate business schools in Britain alone and many more equivalents in continental Europe. An MBA, as the degree soon became, is now regarded by many, individuals and businesses alike, as the essential foundation for a career in business. It is a remarkable story and London Business School has to be complimented on keeping its place at the head of the pack.

But new times bring new challenges – and these are new times indeed. The technological revolution has only just begun to permeate our everyday life; as AI becomes ever more sophisticated, we can expect further disruptions to every system and structure. The resulting changes will elude even the most sophisticated of forecasters. Any prescription for any future will be at best a guess.

Who could reasonably have forecast the impact of the iPhone before it sprang on the world? Heraclitus was right when he said two and a half millennia ago that all is flux. “You cannot step into the same river twice,” he famously declared. He was right then. He is right now. No part of our future is certain.

Add the political disruption in many countries and the future is one of multiple possible scenarios, many of which cannot be foreseen. Uncertainty brings opportunity, of course, as well as danger, and we need to prepare for it. And educating for it requires a radical departure from the mindset that has traditionally characterised our educational institutions, including business schools.

Implicit in their current approach is the idea that the past is the most appropriate model of the future. Study the past, even the most recent past, identify what is useful in it and what is misconceived, package it excitingly and teach it as the best way forward. There are, of course, lessons to be learnt from history – usually cautionary tales of past mistakes – but the new challenge is not the known things, or even the known unknowns, but the unknown unknowns.

Business schools have always been educational pioneers. Simulations, case studies and live projects were first tried and tested there before slowly infiltrating the rest of the educational world. Their opportunity, and challenge, is now to do the same thing again; to lead a seismic change in educational design. In their own sphere business schools must change radically or risk losing their influence. If they do not change they will soon be seen as out of touch, irrelevant and over- priced.

Already some employers are bypassing them, going straight to university and even school leavers, believing that if they can identify the right characters, they can develop them better in their own environment, with some help from online courses, than in the classrooms of the schools. That is the sound of the canary in the coalmines.

"The qualities and abilities needed to cope with uncertainty have to be learnt, but cannot easily be taught"

What, then, does education for uncertainty involve? There is an intellectual component and a personal one. The intellectual one is well suited to a classroom environment. It might include the research and  preparation of alternative scenarios, with their implications for action. New  concepts to describe the emerging world will be needed. Machine, Platform, Crowd, the title of an engaging book by Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson, aptly shows how familiar words get twisted into new meanings to help our understanding.

Even our language, it seems, must change to remain the same. More importantly, however, business students must learn to follow the scientific method, one used by all scientists when exploring the unknown.

They take nothing for granted, question accepted wisdom, have a boundless curiosity and an unrestricted imagination. They know that nothing is for sure, that any hypothesis can only be an approximation of the truth, until something more complete or more accurate comes along. They are therefore bold but humble, respectful of authority but doubtful of its conclusions. They are scientific in their method and philosophical in their purpose, querying the ‘why’ of things as well as the ‘how’.

The real challenge here is the one facing the teachers. In a state of uncertainty they are only the first among equals. They have to learn to be more like the master in an art class, mentoring and encouraging, than the expert laying down the law to obedient listeners. Indeed, their expertise may well be a handicap when so much will be uncertain, dangerously blocking acceptance of the unfamiliar. Even the design of the lecture theatres will have to change, along with that name, to reflect the new form of learning. The transition will not be easy, nor popular. All change is uncomfortable.

The most difficult challenge, however, is the personal one. The qualities and abilities needed to cope with uncertainty have to be learnt but cannot easily be taught, only developed and encouraged.

Curiosity and imagination can be spotted and encouraged in classes, but resilience in the face of adversity, the courage to stand up for what you believe in, the necessity for compromise in order to move forward, and the wisdom to know when – all needed more than ever in business – are much harder to cultivate. Few things worthwhile are achieved by oneself alone, but who to work with,  who to trust and who to steer away  from are things that can only be learnt by hard experience.

“Experience understood  in tranquillity” is the best definition I know of this form of learning – as long as there is serious reflection in the tranquillity.

Ideally, students would be thrust out alone into the world, to return after some months to the tranquillity and reflection  of the classroom. In practice this may be hard to organise, although London Business School, with its two-year MBA programme and hordes of alumni, is well placed to provide both the time and the mentors to make it happen. In the past most schools have relied on the early work experiences of students to provide the material for reflection, requiring four or five years’ work before applying.

Unfortunately, the selection procedures have too often been weighted in favour of academic scores rather than character traits; partly because the former are easier to assess. Nor was there any proper provision in the programmes for reflection on learning from these early life experiences. If there is to be a proper balance between the intellectual and the personal, this has to change.

One problem is that the process involved is not an academic one; something that, in a university culture, makes it less highly regarded. The same applies to drama, which some businesses are using as a way to immerse individuals in diverse situations.

The schools will, therefore, have to broaden their criteria for faculty selection and promotion if they are to maintain their reputation. Only when the faculty list includes a professor of philosophy alongside professors of drama, education and psychology will we know that business schools are beginning to equip themselves appropriately for the very different world ahead.

Comments 3

ALT Technologies 7 months and 5 days ago

why did it take so long to comprehend that the world is not a spreadsheet. Business is not a science, because we deal with humans and their biases. Predicting the future is nonsense CEO ALT Technologies

ALT Technologies 7 months and 5 days ago

why did it take so long to comprehend that the world is not a spreadsheet. Business is not a science, because we deal with humans and their biases. Predicting the future is nonsense CEO ALT Technologies

Prof. Chukwuemeka Chucks Agbakwuru 7 months and 5 days ago

Education is an indefinite process of learning to acquire knowledge, skills, information necessary to equip humans for all obligatory processes of living.