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Management is not a profession

Managers are professionals.  At least we say we are professional generalists.  Management science seems to have its own discipline and can be viewed as an unique body of knowledge.  So it is strikingly surprising that the Harvard Business Review in its July issue carries an article entitled Management is not a Profession.  If you are interested, please have a look.  Whether you agree with the article, the arguments are useful food for thought.

Management is commonly seen as a profession.  The status of managers is similar to that of doctors or lawyers, as is their obligation to contribute to the well-being of society. Managers can be formally trained and qualified, usually by earning a MBA or other post-graduate degree.  If management is a profession, the business school is a professional school.  This concept has fueled criticism of business schools during the recent economic crisis. They have come under fire for allegedly failing in their obligation to educate socially responsible business leaders.  Richard Barker argues against these views.  He considers the claim of a professional business education fosters inappropriate analysis and misguided prescriptions.

The author defines a profession as a particular categories of people from whom we seek advice and services because they have knowledge and skills that we do not.  Very often we cannot judge the quality of the advice we receive.   However, the boundary of the discipline of management or a consensus on the requisite body of knowledge does not exist.  No professional body is granted control, no formal entry or certification is required, no ethical standards are enforced, and no mechanism can exclude someone from practice.

The inherent differences between the professions and management have direct implications for the design of education in each. Professional education enables an individual to master the body of knowledge deemed requisite for practice. It comprises three stages: admission, during which potential entrants are screened for intellectual ability and aptitude; a taught program, during which educators impart knowledge of the subject; and formal assessment, which leads to certification. Business education also involves admission, a taught program, and assessment, but the similarity is superficial only.

Professional education is about taking a given individual on the journey from having little or no knowledge or experience to becoming qualified.  But business education is typically post-experience, meaning that participants are not novices. A MBA program offers them an opportunity to share, conceptualize, and better understand workplace experiences; to build on the skill of working with others; and to open up new career opportunities.  A second difference is that although professional education is concerned exclusively with the individual, a quality business education depends in a distinctive way on the peer group. Thus no given candidate can be effectively evaluated independent of all the other candidates.

The program
The London Business School interviewed many corporate leaders on the qualities they desired in the recruitment of managers.  Almost none involved functional or technical knowledge.  Rather, virtually all their requirements could be summed up as follows: the need for more thoughtful, more aware, more sensitive, more flexible, more adaptive managers, capable of being moulded and developed into global executives.  These requirements are attributes rather than skills. They are intrinsically soft and indefinable. They can probably be learned, especially in a business school environment, but it is not obvious that they can be taught, which is what would be expected from a professional school.  Knowledge on functional areas is important.  But we need to broaden our perspective on business education.  The manager must also acquire the core skill of integration and decision making across various functional areas, groups of people, and circumstances.

The skill of integration distinguishes managers and is at the heart of why business education should differ from professional education.  The key here is to recognize that integration is not taught but learned. It takes place in the minds of the students rather than in the content of program modules. The students themselves link the various elements of the program. Thus it is vital that business schools understand themselves primarily as learning environments, where individuals develop attributes, rather than as teaching environments, where students are presented with a body of functional and technical content.

Moreover, business education is explicitly not one-size-fits-all. Most MBA students have prior work experience; each of them is building in a unique way on a unique foundation and will experience the program differently, learn different things, and emerge to pursue a different career. An important implication is that learning needs differ according to the stage of a student’s career.  In other words, business education is best delivered in doses throughout a career, rather than in a single shot at the beginning.

Business education is about more than clearly defined subsets of knowledge; its essence is in softer, indefinable attributes and experiences that have relevance in interpersonal contexts. Thus an academic grading system cannot reliably predict managerial ability.  Grading is important in technical and functional areas, but the distinctiveness and vitality of business education require that a grading culture be downplayed. Students are there to contribute to and benefit from a rich learning environment; they are there to be empowered rather than ranked.

Management educators need to resist the goal of professionalism. Functional and technical knowledge is an important component of business school curricula, but it is not the essence of management or the substance of business leadership.   Business schools do not uniquely certify managers, enabling them to practice. Nor do they regulate the conduct of those managers according to a professional code of practice. What they do is provide learning environments that consolidate, share, and build business experience, that accelerate personal development and growth, and that help equip managers to deal with their diverse working environments. Business schools are not professional schools. They are incubators for business leadership.