Arvind Jayakumar









By Arvind Jayakumar

Some ruminations on the Oxford MBA experience

I decided to come to Oxford Saïd because I was sold the vision of doing an MBA in a School embedded inside a great University. And, respecting one of the great traditions of Oxford, namely the Socratic Method, I will try to investigate whether this preliminary vision agreed with the physical reality.

At a systemic level, there is growing alarm and concerns about the emerging financial bubble within higher education with a particular focus on costlier programmes like Law or the MBA degrees. As the costs of tuition inch progressively higher, even a minor slip in the Global Economy can see millions of heavily indebted students rack up debts that can be debilitating. It is also noteworthy that in the case of the MBA, these are not “students” in the traditional sense – many of these people are professionals with a rich array of work experiences. Some are people who run their own families. More importantly, all will eventually move into companies and jobs that will collectively have an enormous impact on the world. A quality experience for these professionals, one that leaves them enriched emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually, is critical for all our futures and is the singular moral duty for any educator.

Of the many criticisms that exist against the MBA programmes being delivered today, globally, it pays to start with Peter Thiel. Thiel openly decrees typical MBAs as being “high extrovert low conviction people”, criticizes the “insanity” of the competitiveness that exists within several B-Schools and also advances the case of myopia in B-School theory and practice. To build on Thiel’s argument, I would also say that there are three inescapable consequences of herding people into a “hot-house environment” saddled with an insanely high fees – artificial entry barriers for talent both into and after school, horizontal but not vertical diversity, and few financially legitimate exit options for anyone completing studies in the situation.

In my opinion, Oxford Saïd’s reality sidesteps Thiel’s criticisms with some success. Personally, I am quite gratified by the influences of Oxford’s philosophy on the workings of the Business School. The diversity of the class is quite refreshing (>90% of the class is from outside the UK). The atmosphere is socially responsible, entrepreneurial, and collaborative. Grades and papers are anonymous, to discourage competition and instead encourage competence. Career Services counsellors actually begin a discussion by asking “What do you want to do and why do you want to do it?” instead of blindly herding everybody towards the nearest MBB or PE/IB firm.

In the classroom, debates are free to become vigorous, polarizing and multi-disciplinary, instead of degenerating into a one-dimensional, bipartisan, self-validating echo chamber. In keeping with the higher traditions of the Age of Enlightenment (as opposed to the traditions of Scientific Management that derive from Taylorism), the nature of the theory presented is integrated, both explicitly via integrated academic modules, and implicitly when Professors fluidly cross-reference across courses. It is a glowing testament to the spirit of scientific enquiry when Professors deftly shut down highly articulate but meaningless platitudes with élan, and simultaneously encourage brilliant ideas that might even originate from broken English. To paraphrase Karl Popper, several moments occur where one is exposed to the science of doubt as opposed to the faith of certainty.

Another big criticism of modern B-Schools is implicit in Charlie Munger’s view of learning about the big ideas in multiple fields. This is a direct critique of B-Schools that do not draw on other disciplines. The sentiment is also brilliantly articulated by Popper on the arbitrary split between scientific disciplines when he says that we do not really learn Biology or Geology or Philosophy or such – instead we are trying to solve problems, and the solution to a problem can lie at the confluence of multiple disciplines. A complementary idea that borrows from Kurt Gödel is to also recognize the magnitude of what you cannot and will not know.

Indulge me in illustrating the magnitude of the problem. As of the moment I write this essay, there are 7,484,582,953 people in the world right now – living, breathing and, hopefully, walking and talking. Imagine that you could spend every second, of the next 100 years, doing nothing but constantly meeting with a different human being each second. Would the idea that you will not meet a little more than two-fifths of the world leave you slightly disconcerted? After all, if you’re not slightly awed at the power of an unknown or (supposedly) unjustifiable opinion held, in this case, by a significant population – look no further (or behind) than the incumbent POTUS.

A third criticism, is whether Schools are equipping their students to face an uncertain future. Reid Hoffman, for instance, speculates that the traditional job will either evolve into a “Tour-of-duty” model or that all careers will eventually become “entrepreneurial” (in a sense) in the face of technology’s progress – something that should legitimately scare any B-School that cherry picks consulting and finance heavy cohorts to boost rankings. Add to this the emerging problems of climate change, innovation deficiency, aging, the limits of markets and economic theory, or resource scarcity, it is very likely that many in my generation will live through a very unpredictable and uncertain future. A future where time wasted attempting to parrot Victor Cheng or Marc Cosentino will not be to our collective advantage.

In this regard, I’m glad that Oxford Saïd recognizes Entrepreneurship, the idea of considering “Global Opportunities and Threats” and the “Rules of the Game” as core drivers underpinning the entire course. But is this assertion complete and correct?

In all fairness, access to knowledge and information is something that is ridiculously easy to obtain in today’s world. At a student level, open-courseware lectures from the world’s best professors are available for free. Entire libraries are freely available and the latest research papers, software, and books are easily accessible with the barest effort. Opinions can travel far and wide, in the span of an instant. Influence can expand in strange ways. Within this context, the embeddedness of Oxford Saïd within Oxford does create something special.

In my view, Oxford truly comes into its own when one, (thankfully, under explicit encouragement) begins to explore beyond the confines of the B-School classroom. When one is able to attend talks at the Martin, Mathematics, Geography, Medicine, Philosophy, Politics or Economics Schools, the Union or the plethora of events at the various colleges – one finds it difficult to deny the wisdom of the Chinese proverb that goes “A single conversation with a wise man is worth 10 years reading books.”

The value of confronting uncomfortable ideas and meeting radically different people is also implicit in another insight about the nature of world we live in. To quote Nicholas Taleb, “It suffices for an intransigent minority…to reach a minutely small level, say three or four percent of the total population, for the entire population to have to submit to their preferences. Further, an optical illusion comes with the dominance of the minority: a naive observer would be under the impression that the choices and preferences are those of the majority.”

In a sense, Oxford is a melting pot of different cultures and serves as a huge laboratory for a student of humanity. It is quite an experience to witness the power of activism and multiple instances of real leadership that run deep throughout the University. As a witness to the “Rhodes must Fall” movement or the protests against the non-ratification of the FARC peace treaty or the explicitly feminist protests against the current POTUS, one cannot but observe how multiple narratives, and theories of leadership, emerge and interact with the practicalities of the real world.

Many things are said to characterize the age we live in. Some call it the “Post-Truth Era”, others call it the Fourth Industrial Revolution, some say it is the age of Post-Capitalism, others opine that it is the Networked age – we neither lack words (and also maybe the ego) to indicate that it is quite likely that the age we live in is unprecedented, nor do we lack a nihilistic cynicism that all theories and all ideas are ultimately artificial constructs, a dangerous notion given that it blithely allows us to escape thinking about the consequences of our actions.

The larger question we are trying to learn how to answer is how we, as the Leaders of tomorrow, can make sense of the world and the age we live in. Many of our current instruments of understanding are slowly coming under siege. The belief that “Good data will solve everything” is contrasted by Ronald Coase when he writes presciently that “If you torture data long enough, it will confess to anything.” There is a massive crisis of a growing trust deficit in some of our major institutions and yet, the inherent complexity and redundancies of these systems disallow meaningful change from emerging. The repudiation of Edmund Burke’s idea of respecting tradition is followed by a new tradition of disrespecting even useful traditions, thereby leaving us all in a world without moorings.

Despite the dominance of technology and despite being a geeky engineer, in my view, the answers lie in philosophy. Namely, a philosophy that integrates fuzzy logic, fully embraces Uncertainty, and recognizes the inherent inability of language (through the ages) to evolve quickly enough to articulate scientific ideas. At the root of such a philosophy is a pursuit of alternative opinions, an unencumbered embracing of diversity and an attendant attitude of confronting deeply unsettling opinions head-on.  And I am glad to find that I am not alone, and that Oxford Saïd, Oxford and I would largely be in agreement.

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