Business Schools Need Wider View

BUSINESS schools in the United States need to do a far better job of creating well-rounded, innovative leaders. Indeed, without significant reform by the nation's 650 or so business colleges, US companies may not be able to adequately compete in the world of the 21st century, argues Warren Neel, dean of the College of Business Administration at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Mr. Neel is far from unique in his assessment. In May the Commission on Admission to Graduate Management Education, a leading academic advisory body, called for a fundamental reorientation of management education in the US. The commission urges that management education shift away from a merely technical curriculum; management students should be as much at home in languages, liberal arts, computers, history, and politics as production, marketing, accounting, and executive flow charts.

According to the new report, ``effective [business] organizations in this century's final decade will be those that are agile exploiters of the latest technologies, global interconnections, and cultural diversity, not those that are plodding reactors.''

Successful new organizations, the report notes, will be ``leaner and more flexible, with the ability to broker temporary alliances in order to achieve complex business goals.''

Neel laments that many businessmen, not to mention business college staffs, are relying too much on Western models for government and industry, instead of thinking more universally.

But business schools in the US are currently faced with the need for fundamental change, Neel says. In the 1960s, he says, activism was the dominant theme in business colleges. In the early 1970s, there was confusion about the purpose of business schools. However, he continues, by the late '70s, during the Carter presidency, there was a sense of ``pennance'' for the political and social excesses of the '60s and early '70s, such as Vietnam and Watergate. In the 1980s, colleges and students were geared towards entrepreneurialism and ``making it'' financially. Now, in the 1990s, Neel says, there is a need for business students to recognize international linkages - the rise of a multi-ethnic economy.

Tennessee is considered one of the more progressive of the nation's business colleges. It also has strong ties to industry, including such companies as Procter & Gamble and Georgia Pacific. And Tennessee's associate dean for graduate business programs was a member of the group producing the management report noted above.

``Breadth,'' Neel says, should become ``as valuable as depth'' for corporate leaders. Thus, he would have his students read - are you ready for this? - ``Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.'' Business people, he says, need to do more ``conceptualizing.'' Case in point: Neel just returned from Zimbabwe. Traditional US business practices are largely inappropriate in that political setting. Zimbabwe, he notes, is currently seeking to build up its match industry. Now, matches may seem like a trivial topic to US industrialists. But in a society where almost every family lights an outdoor fire, for food if not warmth, the availability of matches is crucial.

Ethical lapses in business clearly bother Neel. He believes that ethics should be taught as part of each and every course in a business school, rather than segregating ``ethics'' into a separate course that students may or may not attend.

Are there still role models for budding businessfolk? Many of the moguls of the 1980s turned out to have feet of clay. Neel points to David Kearns, chairman and chief operating officer of Xerox Corporation, as representative of business leaders of breadth who also emphasize product quality.

Finally, there is the matter of art. Neel believes business students should understand the works of Claude Monet - and why Monet's impressionistic drawings look quite different up close than from a distance. He wants his business students to have nothing less than an artists' sense of proportion and perspective.

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