Creativity should be the new B-School mantra

blog | Premchand Palety

For more than six years now, I have been a regular visitor to toy shops in different cities on my frequent travels outside New Delhi. Fetching a suitable toy for my kid is a high involvement activity for me. Most of the time, I end up buying a Chinese-made toy. It's their innovativeness that is the critical differentiator in influencing my decision-making process. Chinese creativity in bringing advanced technology to their toys always amazes me. No wonder whether it's Disney world in Florida or a small toy shop in Madurai, "made in China" prevails everywhere, even if there have been some concerns about the ingredients that go into such toys in recent months.

Is this a preview of things to come when most markets world over won't be protected by boundaries? I think so. Welcome to the new world order. Creativity, it seems, will determine and define the new "boundary" of nationalities in an increasingly "borderless" world. So, are our educational institutions, more specifically our B-schools, prepared for this new challenge? I don't think so.

In the past few years, I have participated in a number of panel discussions and conferences on the challenges for management education in the new age. In most such discussions, the emphasis is on soft skills such as leadership, effective communication, team work and emotional intelligence. This is also the trend in Western B-schools. Recently, a successful CEO was interviewed by students of a top-rated B-school in the US. When asked in what area an MBA education helped him most, his response was: in networking.

Enhancing student creativity is not one of the top priorities of our B-schools. In the pursuit of knowledge and skills, we tend to ignore the most important function the human brain was programmed for: to create; to generate ideas that push the frontiers of knowledge. It's perhaps because of this that not much path-breaking research has been done by us though we produce great number of professionals. This is further reflected in many of our industries eclipsed by the "pied piper effect'. Instead of creating something unique, most of them end up as copycats.

Our education system, from primary level onwards, by and large, is designed to produce conformists, a desired trait of the assembly-line culture of the bygone industry age. Not questioning the teacher, intolerance to ambiguity and not taking risks are valued in such a culture. Rote learning has been of one its offshoots. All these encourage non-creative mindsets.

When competition and technological developments have forced many companies worldwide to constantly innovate, creativity is perhaps the most valued trait. There is clearly a mismatch between what our educational institutions, including B-schools, deliver and what the new age organizations demand. The classroom should be transformed into an arena of creativity where mind is challenged for generating new ideas. Instead of retention of information, the mind should be cultivated for the ability to synthesize information from different sources,analyse it and creatively apply it.

When I was a management student, the best teachers were those who would always encourage out-of-the-box thinking. One such teacher would always go for open book exams. This not only tests the creativity of students, but also of teachers. Not every teacher can design an open book test. We also have various tools, such as the case study method, simulation exercises, role plays; theatre in education, and project work, which, if properly used, can enhance creativity of students. If students are expected to apply ideas in novel situations, then they must be made to apply them in different situations over and over in many contexts. This way, thinking creatively will become a habit for them.

In management education, we are also unnecessarily loading students with subjects that have little practical utility. Even in some subjects, the use of technology is not being fully done. In quantitative techniques subject, for example, in many B-schools, students have to do mathematical calculations for transportation problems when software for the same is available. This kind of unnecessary computation work leaves students with less time for creative activity.

Our B-schools haven't done much work on creativity as a subject either. Other than the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad where Pradeep Khandwalla, along with some of his colleagues, has made some significant contributions to this field, I don't think any other institute has done much work on this subject.

Our educational institutions need to wake up to the new reality and unleash creativity if we have to be in the thick of the blurred, interconnected and borderless world. It will also be a true measure of our freedom and empowerment.

Premchand Palety is director of Centre for Forecasting & Research (C fore) in New Delhi, from where he keeps a close eye on India’s business schools.