Article: What has my 13 years of teaching MBAs taught me?

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What has my 13 years of teaching MBAs taught me?

The more specialized you are, to begin with, the more fragile would be your career. Generalization makes your career anti-fragile, or robust against systemic shocks. So what to be an MBA generalist or a specialist?
What has my 13 years of teaching MBAs taught me?

Thirteen years seems like a short time looking at the rapidity of change and what it takes to be an accomplished teacher. However, having taught at over two dozen B-Schools in India and a few abroad, and engaging with students ranging from the early 20s to late 50s, there’s certainly some bit of insight worth sharing. While MBA education has certainly dominated the economic and social landscape of India, as evident from the long tail of B-Schools and an ever-growing number of MBA aspirants, it still seems to be a fashion than a through choice by most. The misery is only exacerbated by the ever-bloating salary figures (on papers) and celebrated MBAs shown moving up the food chain (the survivor’s bias). 

My intent is not to dampen the enthusiasm but to offer a view on what would serve a management student best while being at an institute. This article is not about which college to choose or how to get placed, but rather what to do during those two (or one) crucial year(s) as an MBA student. The piece is about the choice of whether to be a generalist or a specialty, and my strong view is to be an MBA generalist. MBA is a generalization program and not of specialization and I offer five reasons to substantiate my case. These rationales range from the RoI at the B-School to crafting your career. 

Making the most of B-School (scarce) resources

The simplest and the most common-sensical rationale for going with generalization is to utilize what B-Schools offer in terms of breadth of courses and other facilities. One of the oldest business schools in the world, Harvard Business School, which pioneered the case-based teaching technique, still largely remains generalization oriented than aiming at churning specialists. The very foundation of the institute, and others in the western world was laid on the premise of generating ‘General Managers’ who would take on the mantle from the founders or scions of large corporates.

Over the years, MBA institutes (used interchangeably with B-Schools in this article) have largely kept pace with the market and have managed to add courses, with further specialization and sub-specialization. An incoming student is far better placed to make the most of the breadth one is exposed to, for the marginal cost of additional learning is almost zero. 

An MBA program is like a pre-paid SIM card. Whether you talk or not, you have to pay. So you are better off talking and exhausting what you have paid for.

A student who knows one subject in detail, mostly by attending a few extra classes, vis-à-vis the one who’s been through most classes at the campus, both pay the same fee. But the potential returns are vastly different. So, it’s an obvious choice. Learn as much (read diverse) as you can during those two years. Remember, you don’t go to a B-School often to catch-up on what you haven’t learnt at the first place, so learn to drink from the hose.  

Increasing one’s odds of getting placed

Who are you more like to bump into at an airport — an MBA, or an MBA with an MBBS? Most likely it would be an MBA, yet the MBA plus an MBBS profile sounds more attractive. While specialization has its value, it severely lowers one’s chances of getting placed. Most companies aren’t looking to hire specialists to begin with, but as is the case with the famed Tata Administrative Services (TAS) and others, they are looking at well-rounded MBAs who are quick learners and then settle for what the firm needs than what’s they (MBA’s) desire. 

With campuses fighting for placements, one is better off increasing the odds of getting started, and generalization helps there. 

If one is an MBA in finance with a specialization in analytics (yes, there exists such super-specializations), how many companies existing looking for such profiles? Wouldn’t the companies be better off hiring laterally from a competition or grooming its talent internally, than betting on an ‘expert on papers’. Whereas one who’s got a well-rounded understanding of the various domains of business would be perceived as a better bet, since the person would have less biases and would be more malleable. The same applies to internships — generalization triumphs specialization.  

Hedging career against tech onslaught

From the day IBM’s Deep Blue had beaten Garry Kasparov in chess, a game that signifies human intelligence, the machines are making progress at a breakneck speed. The triple onslaught of Artificial Intelligence, Mixed Reality, and Quantum Computing has a massive potential on disrupting jobs en masse. We are already seeing driverless cars, robotic surgeries, teacher-less classrooms (no pun intended there), and workerless factories — all leading to jobless people and restless customers. What makes you think that you so-called specialized job would be secure? 

The more specialized you are, to begin with, the more fragile would be your career. Generalization makes your career anti-fragile, or robust against systemic shocks. 

The prowess of tech is only getting realized now, and in many domains, we are sitting on the top of the proverbial iceberg. The possibilities, especially if Quantum Computing comes through, are limitless, and that’s where one who’s a generalist MBA would have better odds at adapting than one who’s seeking purpose in an ever narrower domain which might be rapidly becoming obsolete.

While you can’t predict the evolution of machines and their intelligence, you can, to a large extent, craft your career by being more resilient and well-rounded in your current skillset. 

Cutting out to be an entrepreneur

There is an ongoing debate on whether successful entrepreneurs need MBA education? But I am convinced that pursuing an MBA from a good institute doesn’t hurt one’s entrepreneurial pursuit. After all, CEOs of most large organizations have almost an entrepreneurial pursuit in the ways they lead their enterprises, and yes, a good deal are MBAs. How much of their success can one attribute to an MBA program—remains a sticky question. 

What should be the specialization of an entrepreneur — Sales, Marketing, Finance, Operations, Systems and IT, or Strategy et al? Well, of course, there would be a starting point, likes selling, but having a well-rounded understanding of business far overweighs any level of sophistication in a given domain. An entrepreneur can and does, hire experts to fill those gaps, but the big picture view can’t be outsourced.

A focus on generalization, or rather a lack of focus on anything in particular, enables you to have a holistic view, eventually helping you connect the dots better than specialists.

An entrepreneur doesn’t necessarily have to be an expert in any given area but must be able to appreciate all the domains so as to avoid being fooled. Since time, cognitive abilities and opportunities are all in limited supply; and any efforts towards specialization always comes at a cost of leaving some blind spots along the way. As an MBA, it’s not advisable to plant such blind spots, to begin with.  

Letting learning and career evolve over time

Continuous learning is no longer a cliché. It’s a way of life and, increasingly, a matter of survival. With the sheer spread and depth of courses available at MOOCs (massive online open courses), one is really spoilt for choices. However, the real currency is in competing what you have started and securing certifications, while competing with the best in class and clearing exams like in any other offline setting. 

What does the disruption through this affordable online education mean for MBA students? For one, you needn’t compress all learning to those two years. Whereas you are supposed to learn to learn, or in other words, build an ‘absorptive capacity’ which is contingent on what you already know. As a specialist, one is more likely to seek specialized knowledge to further your understating of an ever-narrowing domain, till it becomes binary – you are either highly relevant, or absolutely irrelevant. 

Another way of looking at the rich and highly accessible online courses is to pace your learning and build expertise with time. The expertise would come from an incremental development on-the-job, punctuated with a few radical leaps through online courses and battery of offline courses offered by prestigious B-Schools.  

Remember, it’s okay if you don’t leave a B-School with a great strength, but you can’t afford to have an obvious weakness. 

For most MBAs, they have almost 40 years of productive life in them, and committing to a course too early in the game isn’t a good idea after all. Little doubt, some of the most developed economies, especially Japanese, and Western European countries, haven’t yet bought the idea of B-Schools, and rightly so, for in such countries experience comes with working and not just developing a conceptual understanding. Instead, they focus a lot of hard skills, and building horizontal capabilities. 

Why then so much of a talk on specialization?

If there are so many reasons for not going with specialization, then why do B-Schools focus so much on specialization, to the extent that most incoming students have to decide in their very first week at the campus of whether they would be CFOs or CMOs in the long run! 

I reckon this rush towards hyper-specialization is a convenient way for B-Schools to manage their assets, especially faculty members and infrastructure. By dividing and sub-dividing students into ever-shrinking specializations, the management of management schools optimizes their resources, which mostly happens at the cost of the students’ learning and future prospects. As an MBA, it’s not only okay but also desirable to be a jack of all trades and master of none. Mastery comes with time. 

To sum up, push back on the tendency of being a specialist. Specialization is, at best, accrued over years of working and pruning your skills than sitting through some extra classes and competing with an ever-winnowing cohort.

Topics: Education, Career, Learning & Development

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