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Are We Teaching What to Look For?

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

Message Number: 

If we were to make a serious efforts in universities, especially in graduate schools, of imbuing students with a sense, not just of responsibility to call a spade a spade, but giving them the perspective of the entire organization, the levers of power and accountability and the negotiating skills of speaking 'truth to power', we might elevate the quality of their education (as distinct from training) as well as the functioning of our modal organizational  entities. 



In response to posting TP Msg. #1068 The Global Auction - How Valid is the 'Learning Equals Earning' Paradigm?, on January 18, 2011 I received some short comments from Walter P. Blass a retired Director-Strategic Planning for AT&T; and now a Visiting Professor of Management at the Grenoble Graduate School of Business in France. Blass has had considerable experience in business and higher education world-wide and I asked him to expand on his note about his own experience in teaching Asians both in their continent and in Europe. In particular I asked him to offer some observations on what they learned or didn't, and the gap between the usual didactic method of teaching back home, and the interactive, problem-oriented teaching prevalent in many American and European business schools. His response is below. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect those of GGSB.


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Are We Teaching What to Look For?


My most striking impression was of the great difficulty some, ALTHOUGH CERTAINLY NOT ALL, Indian, Korean, and other Asian engineers have in learning how to "climb" a ladder of abstraction and hierarchies. For example, I asked one such Indian student to stop describing what had gone wrong in the case, and start looking at who was responsible, who might have to be moved from his job, how , in systems terms, you might set up procedures to prevent a similar occurrence. He simply froze!  Without criticizing him, or trying to embarrass him, I could not get him to see the company as a whole, with its various levels, and the kind of organizational chart you might look for to spot the weak link. In my last two trips to China, I heard similar stories about Chinese-trained engineers who would not tell you when something was wrong.    

I've had this experience in Grenoble, in Munich, in Singapore, in Mexico City so it's not restricted either to Asians, engineers, or any particular sub-group. What seems to be missing is a consciousness on the part of young professionals to look for a chain of responsibility, a chain of commission and omission that explains "the problem." With some French students, they have been asking me for my " methodology" to grasp issues in a case study, to which I explain that if such a thing existed apart from the human brain, the Japanese would have perfected a gadget for it, and none of the French would have a job.

Take the EXXON Valdez case as an exemplar of what I mean. There was a collision between a laden tanker with a reef in Alaska in 1989. The captain was not on the bridge; he was drunk in his bed. the Third Mate was illegally in command ( you have to be a First Mate to qualify.) Neither the U.S. Coast Guard, Alyeska Pipeline Company or EXXON had emergency equipment available to deal with the resulting spillage of 11 million gallons of crude oil. There was no instant communication available to anyone who might have prevented the ship from sailing, had all the facts been known.  My question as the instructor was, so what should have happened before the accident, why didn't it, and who is responsible?  What strikes me today, 20 years later, is how eerily the BP Macondo oil well explosion parallels the EXXON experience, how little seems to have been learned    ( at almost any level) within the industry. Jay Forrester wrote abut Systems Theory back in the 1960's-have we forgotten ? Tony Hayward, CEO of BP assumed that each of the levels responsible for safety, drilling, inspection, and quality control of equipment was doing their job-without the verification that trust demands.

There is a story that Mexican potters always build a defect into their pots deliberately because only God can make a perfect pot.

What has all of this got to do with how we teach, not just in business or engineering schools, but in any human endeavor where elements of risk exist. How do we teach that professionals at any level be able to identify the responsible level, even  the individual who can be asked point blank: are you sure? I know that corporations with tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of employees jealously guard their inner telephone book and organization chart. When I worked for AT&T, only 5th level and above were privy to the actual office and home telephone numbers for any person at their level and above. Apart from privacy concerns, a good question is whether this "concealment" of who is responsible at such august levels is effective in an unusual situation. If the job title were identified, but not the name, would that be enough? Or does a culture that inhibits a lower level employee from actually contacting a 'higher-up' lead to ignorance on the latter's part of what is actually happening on the ground. Arjay Miller, former president of Ford Motor, and later dean of the Business School at Stanford said in a Wall Street Journal article that Corporate Directors are inundated monthly with tales of shenanigans, failures, irresponsibility, etc., rather than remaining blissful ignorant. The problem for them lies in how to triage all this information.

According to the Commissions which President Obama appointed to look into the BP disaster, into the Financial near-meltdown, into the Housing foreclosure crisis of 2006-2010 in every case there was knowledge in the system that some things were wrong. Neel Kashkari, the Assistant Secretary to Henry Paulson, stated publicly that already in the fall of 2006 signs were accumulating in the U.S. Treasury that some banks were in big trouble rolling over some of their problem loans. In the case of the BP disaster, the Frontline video spells out in horrific detail, personal knowledge of sloppy construction, equipment that should only have lasted 20 years being run for 37 years, budget cuts that seriously affected preventive maintenance, assurances from supervisors that, oh yeah, it will all be all right. etc. Selling mortgages to families without a financial cushion, with "no money down" is asking for a bubble that inevitably gets pricked-are we to believe that no one knew?

I'm not trying to reform Corporate behavior; all I am asking for is that when we train business majors, engineers, scientists, managers of any description, we insist that they learn about hierarchies, about organizational charts, about delegation of authority so that when something is wrong they can follow the trail, just like a blood hound. That means not sticking to software programs that tell you how "it's supposed to work"; not imbuing students with "tools" for financial or stress analysis at the omission of how such decisions are mediated inside large organizations. Teaching , especially outside North American and Northern Europe tends to rote learning of formulae, of established procedures without ever considering what to do if it doesn't work right, and the trickiest aspect, how to tell "the boss" that (s)he's got a serious problem. As the Director-Strategic Planning for NY Telephone and later AT&T, I made my share of bloopers in trying to warn my boss when things went wrong. Much as he cared for me, he was furious for embarrassing him in front of his peers. Nor did he ( or for that matter any boss) appreciate being told of problems for which I had no solution because they were systemic, beyond my remit, or laden with problematic consequences.

The saying goes that if you ask the right question, you have more than half the right answer. Nowhere is this more true than in asking " what do you do when something is wrong?"  Back in the 1990's I taught a case about Eli Lilly which had developed an  NSAID anti-arthritic drug that seemed especially effective. But over the two years the drug was sold in the UK increasing rumors suggested that it was dangerous. Finally in July 1981, an article in The Lancet blamed it for 62 deaths. My question to the students was what if you worked at Lilly and knew it was dangerous and no one was listening? In a two hour class of adults I heard every side of this question. Then I handed out the Arjay Miller article and suggested that every big company has something like this waiting to explode, but that even Directors may actually know about it.

If we were to make a serious efforts in universities, especially in graduate schools, of imbuing students with a sense, not just of responsibility to call a spade a spade, but giving them the perspective of the entire organization, the levers of power and accountability and the negotiating skills of speaking 'truth to power', we might elevate the quality of their education (as distinct from training) as well as the functioning of our modal organizational  entities.