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Who says B-schools teach you nothing

By G S Ramasubramanian (Ramsu)
June 29, 2005 14:27 IST
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Everybody has a list of what they don't teach you in B-school. A certain Mr McCormack had a whole book-load to say on the subject. Others, notably on this site, have had their own laundry lists.

Well, my list of things a B-school doesn't teach is much shorter, and comprises just one item: a B-school doesn't teach you anything you don't want to learn.

The flip side being that it can teach you everything you 'do' want to learn, in its own way.

I studied at the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta, and here's what I took away from the place:

My experience there did not necessarily teach me how to make great presentations, but making a presentation in front of a class or to a group of judges in a paper contest taught me the importance of doing it well.

Exactly how to do it well came with practice.

I didn't 'stay' in a hostel; I 'lived' there. And that verb makes all the difference -- I learnt to get along with people of various hues. It didn't necessarily prepare me to lead a team, but it prepared me for the reality that listening to and understanding what the other person says is the key to getting along and, more importantly, getting things done.

I didn't necessarily get exposed to 'real' issues and constraints. But I learnt to deal with pressure and with conflicting demands, and I learnt the importance of finding a balance between them.

Failure? It means different things at different levels. I walked into an institute that was pretty tough to get into, and felt like the king of the world for exactly 2 seconds before I woke up to the fact that everyone else out there had also scaled the same peak.

And I learnt to deal with that, and with the occasional failure: a bad grade, a miserable presentation and whatever else my experience there could throw at me. No, I didn't give me a taste of real failure -- if I had seen too much of that, I probably wouldn't have been able to get in in the first place!

But my experience there did teach me some useful lessons in how to deal with the smaller failures. The bigger failures are yet to come, and I'm sure they will at some point, but I doubt that my ability to deal with them will have anything to do with my experience anywhere, let alone a B-school.

If you enter the 'real world' and don't see much failure for the first few years, your experience is still going to fall short of your requirements to deal with your first big foul-up.

Multi-tasking? Executives have to multi-task between expectations of multiple stakeholders, their own ambitions/expectations, and the desire of their family to see them more often.

B-school students, at crunch time, have to deal with five end-of-term project submissions, exams, their CGPA (Cumulative Grade Point Average) and their desire to spend time sitting by the lake with a bunch of friends and a guitar. Not real life?

Well, back then, it was very real, very important and very stressful. And I can tell you from experience that the lessons I learnt in dealing with these expectations then are the lessons I still use when I have to make two project presentations before the end of the week, try and satisfy ten people with different things on their mind, and find time to take my wife out to a surprise romantic dinner on the occasional Thursday evening.

I don't think that my experiences are particular to any specific B-school -- I am sure there are many out there who can relate to the above in their own specific ways.

Life in a B-school is no more than a microcosm of reality. It cannot be more than that. And there will always be things that it will not prepare you for. What it teaches you about how to handle real life is not significantly different from what any other experience can teach you.

If someone can write a book on how to view life through motorcycle maintenance, then I don't see how B-schools can occupy any special place in this regard.

What B-schools do teach you is a formalised body of knowledge that allows you to view things in a fairly structured manner. They don't teach you to force-fit a structure onto a situation -- my professors always gave me the independence and incentive to think beyond the boundaries of a well-known solution.

True, it was often easier to shy away from such exploration. But then, doesn't the same apply to real life as well?

Like any other educational institution, a B-school cannot prepare you for real life in the sort of practical way you wish it would. It does, however, arm you with a nice little toolkit to handle a good bit of it. And if you pay close enough attention when in the classroom (and outside), you'll also realise that these tools don't solve every problem, and their effectiveness depends largely on how you use them.

No matter what the various management institutes do with the curriculum (or anything else they can provide as part of the overall experience), there will always be an easy way to get through B-school, and also a tough one.

The former involves waiting for the lessons to come to you. The latter involves actively seeking them. And in a B-school, as anywhere else, the latter will always have the higher pay-off.

The author is an IIM-C graduate and currently a scientist with GE in Bangalore.

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G S Ramasubramanian (Ramsu)

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