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'B-schools teach you to be good corporate foot soldiers'


Meenakshi Radhakrishnan-Swami  |  New Delhi 

Rajeev Agarwal
I am from an engineering background "" I graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, in 1986. So, until I went to B-school, I didn't really understand how different disciplines tied together in a company. And this despite the fact that I'd already been in the corporate world for some years.

The learnings from B-schools on organisation behaviour and communication were very useful. And I believe that as organisations grow, these become even more important.

More importantly, B-schools focus on excellence "" all the people in my institution were very bright. Not just in terms of their grade sheets, but in other areas as well.

Nevertheless, I believe there are some aspects of education that can be improved on, to the advantage of the students, industry as well as the institutions themselves.

The first aspect is understanding what discipline drives a particular industry. For instance, most B-schools play up corporate strategy as the discipline to follow.

Accordingly, when I joined Microsoft, I asked for projects relating to corporate strategy, only to discover that the emphasis at Microsoft was on product strategy. At Intel, on the other hand, finance is paramount.

So, it would be a good practice for B-schools to help students familiarise themselves with what is relevant in each industry, whether it's software, automobiles or heavy engineering.

Of course, the best understanding of the importance of the different factors that drive an industry comes from experience. But education can help raise awareness as well.

The second lacuna in management education today is focus. B-schools should inculcate in their students the ability to focus on the key issues in any problem and then deal with them single-mindedly.

The third problem lies in execution. B-schools emphasise strategy. But real companies focus on execution. And execution is what distinguishes good companies from great companies.

Reliance and Microsoft are great companies only because they pay attention to execution.

But there's no real way to teach focus and execution. So perhaps B-schools should emphasise the importance of these qualities by taking real-life examples.

Consider the three key players in any industry and dissect their actions "" why were some strategies successful while others failed? At the heart of most failures lies an inability to focus on a strategy and execute it properly.

This is all the more important when you consider that, regardless of the title they hold, most B-school graduates are in execution-related jobs.

That's because the decisions about product, marketing and finance are generally made at the highest levels in a company's hierarchy "" it is up to the rest of the people of the company to ensure that the plans are carried out properly. And most companies fail not because of any lack in their planning, but because the troops on the ground failed to follow through.

A subject that B-schools perhaps don't pay enough attention to is communication, both oral and written. It sounds trivial, but when you consider that management graduates will spend most of their careers working as team players, the importance of making the point accurately is intensified.

In this sense, good communication skills have nothing to do with fluency in a language "" elucidating the context and providing a clear understanding of the issues on hand are more crucial. This is especially true for people from technical backgrounds "" their focus is generally on problem solving and getting the numbers right. They tend to overlook the larger picture.

I must admit that my B-school education came in handy when I set out on my own. It helped me separate the hype from the reality. When people spoke of concepts like "flat store pricing model", for instance, it did not intimidate me "" I knew what they were talking about.

Similarly, the courses on organisation structure were useful when it came to deciding whether my company should follow a top-down or matrix structure. (For the record, software companies work best on a matrix structure.)

Of course, some of the biggest entrepreneurs never went to B-school. B-schools teach you to be good corporate foot soldiers. That's important, of course, but perhaps they should teach you to lead well, as well.

B-schools emphasise the criticality of business plans and large corporates also reward you for writing a business plan well. But look at the case studies of some of the best entrepreneurs "" most of them saw opportunities and started their businesses based on that, not any business plan.

(Rajeev Agarwal is CEO and Co-founder of Seattle-based software service provider, MAQ Software. He graduated from the University of Michigan Business School in 1993.)

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First Published: Tue, August 24 2004. 00:00 IST