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The Power

'An MBA teaches you business, not management'


Henry Mintzberg has been called a consistently contrary Canadian academic who sometimes seems to be undermining the very industry that he works in by The Economist. A noted author, management guru and a frequent visitor to India since 1995, Mintzberg, who's been a professor of management studies at McGill University in Montreal, Canada for 40 years, spoke to TOI-Crest about why governments can't really solve big global crises, what doesn't work with teaching management and why we really need to recognise what he calls 'the plural sector'

You have been critical of MBAs. What do management schools get right, and what do they get wrong?

They are very good at teaching business functions. They do that well and that's important. People graduate knowing about business. What they don't do is graduate knowing about management. If they think that, they are menaces to society. We should have skulls and crossbones stamped on to their heads saying "warning, not prepared to manage" because the idea that you know management because you have done a hundred case studies, that's dysfunctional. George W Bush did a hundred case studies, and look what happened. So you learn management on the job. Then you come in and learn from your experience. Management is a craft. It's based on experience. Then, there's a component of art, of insight and creativity. It is not a science but it uses science. If you bring in 45-year-old managers from Wipro, they know the craft, they are pretty artistic and they know some of the science. They can balance these things in the classroom. If you bring in a 25-year-old who hasn't worked or was a salesman for a couple of years or something, there's no basis for the craft, no experience in management and not much experience in organisations. The art may be there or not, but you don't teach the art in any case. So you teach the science. You teach analysis, you teach the functions: marketing, finance, accounting - in terms of theories and cases. Do cases make up for experience ? That's Harvard's argument that cases simulate management experience. But that's a pretty bad simulation. You've read 10 or 20 pages on a company you know nothing about, and next day in class, not only are you discussing it, which is OK, but you're having to pronounce on what that company should do.
I can't imagine anything more superficial. You don't know the products, you've never met the customer, you don't know the people, you don't know the industry, but you're pronouncing judgment. And there is this deification of decision making - "management is decision making". Sure, managers make decisions, but management is an awful lot more than decision making. At the very least it's about facilitating other people to make decisions.

You are not very optimistic about the ability of governments to handle global problems. Why?

We've been stuck in this debate since the French Revolution. We've bounced back and forth between left and right for a long time. What we saw under communism in Eastern Europe, shades of which can still be seen in China and Russia even though they are past communism officially...we saw a total imbalance on the side of the public sector. What we are seeing in the West - especially in the United States - is total imbalance on the side of the private sector - which is turning out to be no better. I mean, it's not as bad as communism ever was, but it's not the answer to anything. This idea that somehow we discovered the truth when communism collapsed, that capitalism was somehow the end of history, is complete nonsense. Because of those beliefs America has gone totally out of balance on the side of the private sector and most other countries are following suit. Government is either paralysed or seesawing between left and right.

You also don't believe that corporate social responsibility is the answer?

Corporate social responsibility is a great idea but it will never make up for corporate social irresponsibility. Exxon is not going away because people are building windmills. Essentially what I call the unholy alliance of economic dogma with corporate entitlement, particularly on the global level has free rein, as long as government is weak with regard to global regulation. But there is no global regulation. Global corporations have pretty much free rein and we are not getting any resolution to any of our big problems, like global warming. It's an absolute joke that a major conference on global warming is held in Qatar. The country has the worst environmental footprint in the world. And yet they are holding a conference on global warming.
But governments are getting their messages from Exxon - they're not getting the message from the scientists who have been warning them that things are getting worse. And how can they get that message when it's always sold as, "you're gonna kill off all these jobs, you're taking all these profits away". So the bonuses of the executives of Exxon are more important than the survival of the planet.

You've said that the future lies with 'the plural sector'.

We need to recognise the importance of a third sector, besides the public & private sectors, one that I call the plural sector - civil society or the third sector or non profits or NGOs. These are plural in nature and if this sector needs to take a place along the other two sectors it will need a label that fits naturally. It's not an absent sector;it's an invisible sector. We don't realise how influential it is and could be. The most important statement on the plural sector was by (Alexis) de Tocqueville 200 years ago - when he described American society as largely community based. What distinguishes the plural sector is community-based action.

How will this plural sector succeed, reach critical mass and gain the ability to achieve real change?

The tragedy of this sector is that well meaning people have to spend so much of their effort simply fighting established interests that they can't proceed with interesting initiatives. Governments are always suspicious. Governments as currently conceived are individualistic democracies - they're about the freedom of the individual. Whereas a real democracy, I think, balances individual rights, community rights and collective rights. Global corporations are also uncomfortable. Wal-mart is no fan of unions;unions are community movements.
The other force undermining the plural sector is technology. Technology has driven us away from communities and driven us towards individualism. And a network is not a community. A network is much looser. Social initiatives happen in communities, but they connect through networks. What we get now for example in Egypt or Tunisia are individual movements, but they connect through social media. That's not Egypt today, but that was Egypt getting rid of Mubarak.

The movement that took place after the Delhi rape is another example. India is a work in progress. Every time I come here, there is something new, something has changed. So I wouldn't underestimate the capacity for social change even though these things don't manifest themselves immediately. But I think a very strong signal has gone out. And that's the kind of thing that leads to social change, especially in this country, this country is so adaptable. In fact it's stunning to me how adaptable this country is.

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