Connecting Dots in Time and Space

Business Education

I much enjoyed reading a recent book by a former GBSN colleague and friend, Jim Dean, and his co-author Deborah Clarke: “The Insider’s Guide to Working with Universities. Its tag line: Practical Insights for Board Members, Business people, Entrepreneurs, Philanthropists, Alumni, Parents, and Administrators.” This core of the book – as far as I know the first of its kind – explains to very senior non-academic people, especially corporate CEOs who become presidents, deans, trustees and such, of academic institutions how universities differ from businesses, and what makes them tick. My favorite quote: “From 1948 to 1953 former Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe and future president Dwight D. Eisenhower served as president of Columbia University. When faculty member Isidore Rabi won the Nobel Prize, Eisenhower observed that it was good to see university employees get such recognition, at which point Rabi interrupted the president to say, “Excuse me, sir, but the faculty are not employees of the university. The faculty are the university”. [1]

In a chapter entitled “Inside the Black Box” the authors speak to non-academic people whose understanding of universities comes mainly from their own student experiences.  The chapter touches on modern pedagogy which may not be familiar persons who  themselves only experienced traditional teaching: small discussion classes, first-year seminars, the flipped classroom in which students absorb materials on their own and then discuss them with their teachers, who are lecturers no longer but facilitators; methods which encourage teamwork and critical thinking; participatory case discussions; online learning synchronous or not; and, in a few institutions such as MIT and Umeå, “maker spaces” where students use 3-D printers and laser cutters. These pedagogical innovations all have in common an emphasis on experiential learning.

My second dot goes back in time.  My gym co-sufferer, David Roll, published a masterful biography: “George Marshall – Defender of the Republic.” Marshall is probably best known for the eponymous post World War II European Recovery Program which he launched when he was US Secretary of State. Some will remember the key role he played as Army Chief of Staff under presidents Roosevelt and Truman in the Allies defeating Nazi Germany. What fewer may know – and I didn’t – is that in 1927 Marshall was appointed assistant commandant of the Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia, essentially a military university. There “he was given a virtual free hand in selecting the instructors and designing the curriculum for teaching small-unit tactics, tank and air support, and battlefield mobility, an opportunity to experiment with new ideas for preparing the officers who would lead the nation in the next war”. [2]

“Instructors were not allowed to lecture from written texts or extensive notes. If they could not teach with spontaneity, they knew they would be replaced. Classes in tactics were moved outside and into the field. Students practiced leadership by taking turns commanding elements” of a regiment. For demonstration, a tank battalion was attached to Fort Benning as well as  an air squadron . Every student was given hands-on experience. To mimic the fog and confusion of war, accurate maps were banned. Training exercises took place at night in unfamiliar terrain at random places. Student officers were confronted with surprises and adversity. They were encouraged to come up with creative and unorthodox solutions, to fearlessly disagree with their superiors. School solutions were verboten”. [3] Sounds familiar ?

The outcomes were spectacular: 50 of Marshall’s instructors and 150 of his students were destined to become World War II generals.

My third dot has to do with my current occupation as president of a nonprofit organization: Management Skills for Wildlife Conservation, which was incorporated last year. MSWC shares GBSN’s spirit, as it strives to bring effective learning that is locally relevant to often remote wildlife conservancies, and in particular community-led conservancies such as exist in Kenya.  Here too experiential, participant-centered, pedagogy comes to the fore. Just one illustration: Allan Ward, whose career had been in leadership and management training with large corporations as well as the UK aid agency DFID, moved to Africa, where he developed a program adapted to the realities of Kenyan community wildlife conservancies. Just like Marshall at Fort Banning, and with methods that have much in common with those which described by Dean and Clarke, the outcomes can be spectacular.  A testimony of the 5-months program’s ability to empower: a conservancy chairman raised $350K and in less than a year had built a school for two separate communities. The communities attribute the schools to the success of the conservancy and are thus open to support the conservancy and hence conserve wildlife.

Of course, Allan Ward uses cases, but not 26-page Harvard Business School-like cases. Rather, he developed micro-cases, and I can’t resist, in conclusion quoting one of them (and it probably sounds even better in Swahili):  “In Conservancy A the driver is the son to the board chairperson, the father of the driver often allocates personal work to him using the conservancy vehicle. For example, to ferry water to his cattle, taking him to town for shopping, etc. The driver does not obey the board chairperson since his senior is the conservancy Manager because he should work strictly on plan given by the manager. At the next board meeting after several incidences the board chairperson raises an agenda item of firing the driver for being disobedient to the board and he also says that the driver is lazy and uses the conservancy vehicle as a matatu. [4] What lessons can you draw from the above situation ?”

[1] Chapter 1, footnote 17.
[2] Chapter 4.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Collective taxi


Guy Pfeffermann is the Founder of the Global Business School Network. He currently serves on GBSN’s Board of Directors and is the President of Management Skills for Wildlife Conservation

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