Business education – more or less?

April 25, 2009 BY danariely

Derek Bok, the 25th President of Harvard, famously said: “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” What we need is more business education, not less!

There are recent debates about the value of MBA education and I have to say that I find the notions of scrapping management education somewhat odd.  It is not that I think that management education is perfect, far from it, but its importance in my mind has only increased due to this financial crisis. Does anyone really want to suggest that the people who are running our institutions and companies do not need to learn more? That they don’t need to have specific knowledge to better guide their companies and our economy? For example, is there anyone who doesn’t think these days that executives need to have a much better understanding of accounting, and that they need to know how to read accounting statements?

From my perspective, the main lesson from this economic meltdown is that despite our confidence – we actually know very little about the operation of the financial world around us.  Moreover, it is clear that such lack of understanding, together with high confidence and reliance on the opinions of others (presumably experts) can have devastating consequences. If anything I suspect that this meltdown shows exactly how important it is for executives to have a better understanding of the world in which they operate.

Of course, like many others, I believe that it will be very useful to change the curriculum of the MBA program so that it is more useful — but if anything I would make it mandatory for executives to keep on learning throughout their careers in the same way that we require physicians to keep on improving and learning.

In terms of the actual curriculum for management education, my own view is very simple-minded: The world is incredibly complex, it changes all the time, and we should not even hope that we could create a general model that accurately describes the world in all its possible states. Instead I proposed that management education and practice should become much more experimental and data-driven in nature — and I can tell you that it is amazing to realize how little business know and understand how to create and run experiments or even how to look at their own data!

We should teach the students, as well as executives, how to conduct experiments, how to examine data, and how to use these tools to make better decisions.  For example, over the past five years or so we have learned from experimental evidence a lot about the tricks that conflicts of interests can play on us, and these findings help us understand financial catastrophes from Enron to the recent market failures (for my take on this see TED).  Given this new understanding, and we lean more and more all the time, I think it is crucial to transfer this knowledge to business executives so that they can take this new understanding into account.

Disasters are usually a good time to re-examine what we’ve done so far, what mistakes we’ve made, and what improvements should come next. If the lesson from all of this will be to blame the MBA programs than I think we would have not gained much. However if we will seriously consider how to keep on exploring and understanding the complex world we live in, and make this an inherent part of management education, perhaps the future version of our world would look better.