1. Research-based learning and its value in the corporate sector
In both large international conferences and intimate round-table discussions, corporate leaders around the globe have expressed their disillusionment with the quality of top-MBA graduates. They lament the 6-10 months of hand holding needed to ready fresh graduates for the job and question their ability to make effective business decisions.
This is because historically, management education has simply focused on imparting facts, case histories, and theory. The ability to problem-solve, or even define a problem itself, has not been emphasized or inculcated by MBA programs. This is unfortunate, because such critical-thinking skills are especially important for leaders in today’s rapidly globalizing economy – when cross-cultural aspects of economic policy, law, consumer behavior, and market strength need to be considered.
How do we teach students to apply their minds? How can we groom them to innovatively identify business opportunities? How can we encourage critical-thinking and analytical approaches to decision-making?
Recognizing the failures of traditional instruction (rote learning through textbooks) and armed with deeper understandings of how people learn (by encouraging curiosity and debate), business schools around the world (LSE, Wharton, Kellogg, Warwick, etc.) have increasingly turned to research-based teaching methodologies. Interestingly, such methodologies have been stressed in US medical schools for decades – and from there has spread to different disciplines and localities.
2. What is Research-Based Learning
In research-based learning, research is interwoven with teaching and learning and underpins academia at a range of levels. By incorporating research outcomes into curricula, students are made aware of the processes and scientific method of thinking. This creates a culture of research and innovation. There are four levels /ways in which research and learning are interlinked – they provide a framework for incorporating research into management education. According to Blackmore, P. and Fraser, M. (2007), the four ways are:
Faculty draws on their personal research experience to design their courses. By sharing examples and anecdotes about tackling “real world” problems with their students – they supplement theoretical coursework and narrow-case-studies in powerful ways. Discussions between students and experienced faculty allow them to brainstorm solutions to real-world problems together.
Example #1 (a classic): Given India’s population, large MNCs such as Unilever and Procter & Gamble recognized the huge potential market for their shampoo products. However, they struggled to sell their large bottles of shampoo, as they were impractical and far too expensive for those who live on daily wages. To make their products more affordable and accessible, these companies built off C.K. Prahalad’s “Bottom of the Pyramid” theories and conducted research on consumer behavior, pricing, product design, and packaging and distribution efficiency. The result was single-serve packets of shampoo, which are affordable and accessible, and have become the nationwide norm for a variety of other products (jam, coffee, aspirin, skin cream).
Example #2: Airlines need to set their fares in a very strategic way to maximize profits. Thus, they research global flying patterns, passenger sensitivity to price fluctuations, seasonal and climatic factors, the purchasing power of different segments of society, fluctuating costs of fuel, public perception of airline safety – not to mention strategies to beat out competing airlines! MBA graduates need the analytical tools to make sense of all this critical information – and make decisions which provide the best service/product which fits a company’s financial resources.
Example # 3: A parliamentary committee recently found that fruits and vegetables products worth more than 50,000 crore are wasted each year due to lack of proper storage and processing facilities in the country. In a nation where millions go to bed hungry daily, this is troubling. Companies are now increasingly utilizing Tetrapack packaging technology. Companies such as Tropicana can now keep orange juice fresh for much longer, save money on storage/refrigeration costs, reach global consumers and therefore employ many more farmers, and provide a nutritious product to society. By identifying a societal need and then directing scientific research towards food preservation, engineering research towards package design, and business research towards understanding the supply-chain logistics, consumer behavior, and business growth opportunities – executives were able to make important decisions which eventually created value for shareholders, the economy, and society.
Example # 4: Decades ago in Himachal Pradesh, whenever the prices of potatoes dropped very low, potato farmers would not cultivate their crops – it just didn’t make financial sense. At the time, Pepsico executives were looking for an opportunity to make profits, as well as satisfy a societal need. As the Himachal Pradesh environment is well suited for growing potatoes – and as farmers are a particularly vulnerable community, Pepsico looked into building a potato-chip factory in the region. They carried out extensive research regarding global demand of chips, projected growth in the Indian market, the most efficient cutting/frying/packaging method, pricing models, and legal and license issues. Through all this, Pepsico effectively seized an enormous business opportunity, and contributed to the HP community.
3. Intellectual and Career Advantages
Currently, the importance of research to economic, environmental, and societal progress is not particularly recognized in India. However, as the global trend towards research-based learning continues in fields as diverse as Medicine, Engineering, Psychology, Law, and Business – students will begin to understand the research principles of objectivity, respect for data and evidence, importance of considering alternative perspectives, tolerance for ambiguity, and the importance of considering alternative perspectives.
Numerous studies have found that students are often more inspired by lecturers whom they perceive to be experts in their field, and who convey enthusiasm for the subject. Additionally, students tend to learn best when they are actively involved in developing their knowledge base.
4. Why Research Based Learning?
A paper in Academy of Management Learning & Education suggests that faculty members’ research productivity and their students’ earnings after graduation are positively linked. The intellectual advantages of research-based learning do give an individual tremendous advantages in a corporate environment. After all, the function of senior management is to identify/solve problems, seize opportunities, delegate people to carry out research on the various aspects involved, and make decisions based on careful analysis.
However, there is one important caveat to all this. As business schools move towards this research-based learning model, it is imperative for faculty to be constantly engaged with the needs of industry through consulting experience – and not limit themselves to theoretical research from the ivory tower.
At the end of the day, the primary benefit of management education is not to instill knowledge of facts, even if these facts are about management practices or business operations. Management education should expose students to research scholars and industry leaders and inculcate dynamic knowledge – whereby students learn how to learn.