Digital Learning in Management Studies
May 2011

Digital Learning in Management Studies

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Most top B-schools today, including INSEAD, Kellogg, Wharton, are focusing on hands-on learning in a bigway. Even companies today emphasise the use of experiential learning in the corporate training setup

Harvard Business School (HBS) invented the Master of Business Administration degree (MBA) in 1921. We are now 10 years away from celebrating 100 years of the MBA degree. After having pioneered various pedagogical methods such as case-based learning, HBS recently announced “bold, brave things” that will set the course for the entire field of management education for the next 100 years. From pure lecture based learning to projects to capstone to case studies, we are now seeing an evolution towards hands-on learning methods such as simulations, multimedia case studies and experiential learning tools. 

It is indeed nice to see the hands-on component gaining ground in the management curriculum. In fact, the verb “manage” comes from the Italian word, maneggiare (to handle), which in turn derives from the Latin wordmanus (hand). 

Most top B-schools today, including INSEAD, Kellogg, Wharton, are focusing on hands-on learning in a big. Even companies today emphasize the use of experiential learning in the corporate training setting.

The following drivers are likely to provide an impetus to digital learning in the management domain.

Safe Learning Environments

Airplane pilots undergo rigorous flight simulator exercises before they are allowed to man an actual aircraft. Doctors practice their skills on a cadaver long enough before they are allowed to do the real thing. When stakes are high, when lives are impacted, when actions are irreversible, it is imperative that a learning environment is created where the learners experience reality and experiment with their decisions in a safe manner.

Come to think of it, modern businesses are also high stakes, they also impact lives immensely and the actions of business managers are often irreversible. Doesn't it logically follow that business managers should also undergo such a training process in a virtual environment?

Need for Continuous Learning

There is a popular folklore about elephants and their mahouts in Kerala. In order to curb the free-roaming instinct of elephants, the mahouts tether a baby tusker to a strong tree with a chain. The baby elephant tries with all his might to free itself from the shackles. However, it is not yet strong enough to liberate itself. With all its efforts to break the chain going in vain, the elephant gives up its quest for freedom and stops struggling.

The most amazing part of the story is that the lesson learnt by the baby elephant is etched so deeply in its psyche that even when it grows up to be one of the strongest animals on the planet, it doesn't try to test its might against the chain. Even when it is tied with a tiny rope to a weak tree, the elephant doesn't break free. The mighty elephant limits its capabilities because of the lessons of the past.

Many of us, much like the elephant, succumb to the lessons of the past. Learning new paradigms is only one side of the equation for today's managers to cope with the onslaught of rapid changes in the business environment. The other essential side is unlearning the old paradigms. Walking around with remnants of concepts, ideas and habits that belong to an older paradigm is a sure-fire recipe to poor performance.

How can managers equip themselves with key skills to cope with the change? Clearly, paper based case studies from the '80s and '90s don't help because there have been so many fundamental transformations in the last few years that these case studies offer very little value in terms of reality.

There is a need for real-time learning systems that help learners unlearn and learn on a continuous basis. The dynamic nature of the multimedia cases, for example, can help the user understand how decisions taken and lessons learnt in the past, that May have been effective at that time May not be valid in the current scenario. 
 
Removing silos in management education

Silos are bad. This message is hammered into an MBA grad's mind during the program. However, if you pay close attention to how the curriculum is structured in these programs, you would notice that there is a deep silo. Marketing professors don't interact with Finance professors and professors in the operations department don't have an idea of what is taught in the accounting course. Are not silos bad for B-schools and consequently, for the MBAs that go through the system, just as they are for companies? Are B-schools guilty of not doing what they preach? If yes, how can this be rectified?

Management education should be integrated and holistic. Technology based delivery method should be used to highlight the interconnectedness of the management domains and encourage students, for instance, to learn the financial aspects of a marketing campaign, the supply chain consequences of a new product introduction, the HR perspective of a system's change in an interconnected fashion. This approach is akin to the Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software helping to remove organization silos and to integrate the enterprise.

From pure lecture based learning to projects to capstone to case studies, we are now seeing an evolution towards hands-on learning methods such as simulations, multimedia case studies and experiential learning tools

Facebook-isation of Learning

Mark Zuckerberg in one of his recent interviews mentioned that education is ripe for Facebook-isation. Learning inherently is a social activity. Students learn as much from the professors as from peers. It is interesting to see how students challenge each other, collaborate and construct meaning collectively. This form of learning is highly engaging, interactive and durable and produces much better learning experiences compared to traditional forms of learning.

Web 2.0-isation of management learning

Let's rewind back to the early days of the world-wide-web. If we jog our memories a little, we'd remember that websites in those days served the purpose of disseminating information in a predominantly one-way fashion. This is usually referred to as the Web 1.0 era. We are now living in the Web 2.0 era where hyper-interactive multi-way flow of information is the norm (In fact, experts have already started talking about the advent of the Web 3.0 era). Users not only require interaction with the website but the means to share their experiences with the other users of the site. Increasingly, we see this online trend spill over to the way businesses function as well. Businesses today interact and co-create products and services along with their end users. Given this trend, the key question we need to ask is, isn't it time that learning also became Web2.0-ised?

The reality, however, is that even today, knowledge is imparted largely in the Web 1.0 style. The instructor assumes the role of an expert and delivers a lecture, with very little interaction between him / her and the students, leave alone interaction between the students. This method of delivery is ripe for disruption. Social learning platforms that help students collectively construct meaning will go a long way in engaging students and elevate the learning.

Clearly digital learning is the way forward for management education. We are likely to witness a lot of innovations happening at B-schools and corporations alike for training a new breed of managers.

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