Sunday, September 18, 2011

Teaching Strategy in Today's America

By Dr. Suhaib Riaz

The signs of a changing America are hard to miss. Two weeks into a new assignment in Boston, and one has seen people wearing "Hire US, America" T-shirts (claiming to be a "union of 31 million unemployed Americans"), campus events incomplete without a mention of the gloomy economy - often with references to budget cuts, students concerned about finding jobs, those with jobs genuinely concerned about getting laid-off, one's bank manager concerned about what the massive layoffs in a rival bank foretell, and so on.

One picks up a New York Times at a cafe to see on the front page that only 23% of Americans believe the country is headed in the right direction (NYT/CBS poll), and that most share a high degree of dissatisfaction with all branches of political administration and leadership. While those figures might not reveal the various colors of political persuasion underlying this dissatisfaction, clearly these are times of change.

This made me think: what about academics teaching courses deeply tied to the economy (such as strategic management)? Are we headed in the right direction?

Are our courses, and hence future managers graduating from them, headed in the right direction? Are we preparing future managers and leaders for a changed economy? Is there a need to shift our thinking from a focus on old, large and well-established organizations that just needed tweaking in a taken-for-granted bullish economy?

Instead, can we start with the larger economy issues and prepare future managers and leaders to be part of the solution? Part of a group that doesn't just say "Hire Me" but also "I'll hire myself, and you too...". Having lived and worked in other parts of the world, there are interesting parallels that come to mind. A few days ago, an old friend called me - from Singapore, where he was visiting his own business that now also extends across Mumbai and Delhi in India. I applauded his entrepreneurialism. "No one ever gave me a job," he laughed. The story was repeated countless times in an India in the early days of liberalization - opportunities had to be created, they just didn't exist yet.

To begin with, some serious assessment of the US economy will have to be built into our courses, such as Gerald Davis' diagnosis (.pdf, based on his book) of the financialization of society and economy, and related "end" of the society of (traditional) organizations (which I include as a challenging reading in my Strategy course). For example, this includes interesting thoughts on the decline in traditional jobs and rise of retailers as the largest US job providers, with associated deeper issues for job security, career growth, etc.

At a broader cultural level, perhaps this should also prompt a revisit of what needs to be celebrated - not just illusion (such as those created by Hollywood/Music celebrities), but also substantive contributions, including job creation - as just happened here in the Cambridge area with the Walk of Fame near MIT's Kendall Square dedicated to people like Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs, etc. This might, perchance, also inspire future managers by giving them something to celebrate that goes beyond making millions through massive fraud and elite entitlements, which are deeply tied to the financial crisis.

Again, political persuasions might suggest different solutions (at times extreme ones - both on the left and right - a fallout of the economic crisis, as I argued a while ago), but it's hard to deny that some sort of change is needed. Are we, as academics, willing to change before change is forced upon us by more severe conditions?