At a recent meeting of the management faculty, the topic of discussion was 'learning outcomes' for management majors. What did we want them to know and what did we want them to be able to do when they graduated with an undergraduate degree? There was general agreement that there needed to be both knowledge-based and skill-based outcomes. I wasn't so sure we could manage that.
When you put nine people around a table, regardless of purpose, the discussion rarely stays on track. Our group leader segued into her recent experience on the college-wide promotions committee where she and others had to decide which faculty got promoted and which did not. One individual up for promotion had put considerable effort into developing techniques for teaching inner-city kids how to swim without using a pool. She had them lie on the floor and practice the various swimming strokes. After the laughter subsided, I made the comment, "Isn't that how we teach management?"
There are various definitions of management. The most popular short one is "Getting things done through people." Students don't do that. Students don't manage people, and neither are they likely to do so on their first job out of college. Teaching management is like teaching driver's education without having a car, or teaching swimming without getting near the water. It explains why most of us who have worked for a living can recall a lot more examples of bad management than good management. No one is teaching people how to manage.
We teach things that managers should know, just as driver's education programs teach potential drivers the rules, procedures, do's and don'ts about driving. But the driver's education students still can't drive until they are put into cars and given a lot of driving practice. If these educated drivers were put in cars, behind the wheel without any driving experience, they would most likely crash. We do the equivalent with our management students and expect them to be able to manage as soon as they are put behind the supervisory wheel.
Students rarely learn to be managers in college, unless they are the fortunate few who do get some practical experience. Once in the work force, observing the process of others managing has very little likelihood of being transferred into real management skills. Similarly, non-drivers don't learn much about driving from watching others drive. If they did, we wouldn't need driver education programs.
I can't help but relate all of this to my own educational process of getting an undergraduate degree, an MBA and then my doctorate -- with the goal of becoming a professor. I've been teaching for almost a quarter of a century, and I've yet to meet another professor who took a course in how to be a professor. The assumption, and a false one, is that with enough knowledge about how to do something, one can do it. And that's how we are preparing people to manage. Well, folks, if you believe that works, read everything you can about flying and then go jump off of a tall building. It's time to rethink how we prepare people to manage.