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An Academical Village that Transforms Students

“I was trained as a decision analyst and game theorist. … but I never really used the techniques of game theory—concepts and ideas, yes, but techniques, no–in my roles as negotiator and director. …Simple, back-of-the-envelope analysis was all that seemed appropriate. I was constantly impressed with the limitations of iterative, back-and-forth, gamelike thinking. I could try to be systematic, thoughtful, and analytic, but the “others” I negotiated with always seemed to have intricate, hidden agendas. … They certainly weren’t satisfying the prescriptive ideals of “rational economic man.”…

I had to balance scientific integrity with political reality. ... I played the role of a mediator, in some the role of an arbitrator....I learned about different national negotiating styles, and above all about the importance of timing: one had to keep a fluid agenda and wait for the propitious time to introduce a contentious issue. I learned that even the Soviets are not monolithic and that they occasionally change their minds. I learned how difficult it is to accomplish anything substantial in open meetings when each side has to go on record for the people back home. I learned that money comes from different pockets and that five million dollars taken from the left pocket of a country might be easier to get than five thousand dollars from the right pocket. I learned that if you wait long enough, someone on the other side will vaguely propose what you want, and that it's easier to open negotiations that way. I learned the need of others to feel that they are part of the inner circle. I learned that "gentlemen's agreements" that are not documented are fragile; that a party may be sincere about such an agreement when made, but that they may not be able to withstand internal pressures from objectors at home; and that because negotiators are embarrassed when they have to back away from promises made, they often become more amenable to other compromises. I learned that the boisterous atmosphere of an Austrian tavern often does far more to establish a proper ambience for negotiations than does a sedate cocktail party or dinner.
        - Howard Raiffa

With these words, Raiffa, a brilliant scholar in the field of bargaining and negotiating, introduced his masterwork in the subject, The Art and Science of Negotiation. What struck me was his blend of analytical rigor combined with his humanity as a student of managerial behavior.  The learnings that he summarizes in the quotation above suggest that the education of a rigorous leader should go well beyond the mastery of analytics.  Mind you, he is not saying that the analytics don't matter, for indeed they are necessary for the preparation of great professionals.  But they just aren't sufficient. It is not enough for schools simply to emphasize objective knowledge ("know what.")  Schools should focus on "know how" (which is tacit knowledge, learned in collaboration with others.)  And a certain amount of Raiffa's reflections entail a capacity to "say why"-these are capabilities to listen, influence, build relationships, navigate through diversity, and so on.  Darden's high engagement teaching really delivers "know what," "know how," and "say why."

A few weeks ago, I attended a confab at a gathering of Deans and CEOs to discuss what business schools should do differently in the wake of the Subprime Crisis.  During dinner, a Prominent Former CEO leaned across the table and wagged his finger at me saying, "You universities are dinosaurs.  Look at all the lectures being put online; the digitization of textbooks; the rise of online degree programs.  All of the schools that are identified by a place will be superseded by the digital medium.  You are sunk!"

A hush fell on the dinner.  Everyone's eyes turned to me, the object of Prominent Former CEO's rant.

"The changes you describe are all happening, and Darden is implementing some of them-for instance, I blog and tweet," I replied.  "But an important exception challenges your conclusion."  Even the waiters started lingering with ears cocked to the reply.

"The digital medium efficiently disseminates facts and theories-the digitization of lectures and textbooks emphasizes that.  And it is showing some promise for building mastery of the mechanics of business (how the two sides of a balance sheet do balance) or competitive logic through games of various kinds.  I agree that the Internet will disintermediate the transmission of objective knowledge."  A smile began to appear on Prominent's face.

Then I motioned to everyone in the room: "But I'm willing to bet that each of us here was transformed in an important way by an in-person encounter with someone else."  I offered some examples of what and who those encounters might have been about:

  • A piano teacher, who over the course of many lessons chided, prodded, corrected, and complimented you to achieve a degree of mastery over that complicated instrument. The point was not just to hit the right key, but to play with feeling and personal interpretation.
  • A coach who showed you how to swing a tennis racquet and then guided you to put spin on the ball, vary the strength of the return, and aim. At times, the coach held your arm and showed you where to position your feet. Through engagement with the coach, you became a decent tennis player.
  • A friend, teacher, psychiatrist, or religious adviser who talked you through a deep personal crisis. The ability of the other person to read you totally was a key ingredient in your recovery.
  • A manager gave you some difficult feedback early in your career and did so in a way that was empathetic and motivated new behavior. The face-to-face meeting was a powerful event that not only made you a better businessperson, but also became a model for dealings with your own employees.
  • You learned to cook with the help of a more-experienced friend. Through repeated meals, you gained insights about how touch, taste, and appearance indicated a dish that was ready to serve.
  • I said, "Each of these transformations entails some kind of learning: can it be gained online? I doubt it if the online education is solitary and passive: watch this video, read that text. The focus of much online learning today is objective knowledge (that is "know what" stuff such as names, dates, formulas, etc.) And didactic online teaching demands relatively little focused attention: you can zone in or out as the spirit moves you."
  • "Transformations that build business leaders are not solo or passive. They are socially engaging and actively experiential. Equally important, they build mastery that goes well beyond objective knowledge-they convey tacit knowledge (the "know how" stuff such as communicating, managing a process, building a team, and so on.) They augment social skills, tact, and emotional self-awareness. Not least, they strengthen self-confidence, courage, and wisdom. They require that you be present, here and now, to win these kinds of attributes."
  • "Darden's high engagement approach, for instance, actively shapes the experience of students to promote interaction that builds these attributes. For that reason, I believe that our school and the few others that take a similar philosophy, will not merely survive, but will prosper. Indeed, the serious challenge to higher education is not the superabundance of information, but the paucity of wisdom."
  • With that, I stopped and looked at Prominent Former CEO. Everyone else did too. He seemed to blush, and said, "Well...I didn't mean it that way!" Everyone chuckled and the conversation moved on.
  • In the weeks since then, I've reflected on the exchange: in what way did he mean that universities are sunk? The digital realm is really impressive. I do think that bricks-and-mortar universities will increasingly revert to the online medium for the transmission of objective knowledge and some skills. But I doubt a similar turn for schools that build the kinds of transformational attributes I described.
  • The Internet seems likely to hasten the segmentation of the enormous field of management education (over 13,000 degree-granting institutions world-wide). Those that purvey the rote learning of names, dates, formulas, definitions, facts, and so on will need to go digital or shrink. Those that focus on the transformation of the student with deeper attributes will need to incorporate what digital technology can offer, but will do well to focus on high-engagement learning, much of which will remain face-to-face.
  • In founding the University of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson aspired to establish an "academical village," not merely a collection of buildings and books, but a genuine intellectual community where students, faculty, and staff would engage one another to promote enlightenment. Today we know that there is not just one model of academic village: some are high-engagement in-person villages like Darden; others are digital villages created with the help of new social media. The former affords the transformational attributes. The latter will excel at conveying objective knowledge. What kind of academical village do you want to inhabit? It depends on what you want to learn and how you want to grow. As the saying goes, "you pays your money and you takes your choice.".
  • Howard Raiffa was prescient: A big challenge in the development of managerial leadership is to get well beyond the mastery of objective knowledge and into tacit knowledge, that is the stuff by which leaders lead. Pushing objective knowledge through digital pipes only gets you so far. The larger gains to be made come from experiences that are transformational and focus on attributes such as leadership and communication. Darden is positioned to do just that.

About the author: Bob Bruner
Bob Bruner

Bob Bruner, a native of Chicago, received a BA from Yale University in 1971 and the MBA. and DBA degrees from Harvard University in 1974 and 1982, respectively. He served as a loan officer and investment analyst for First Chicago Corporation from 1974 to 1977 and was a visiting professor at Insead, Iese and Columbia business schools before taking on the position as dean at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business in 2005.

Bruner continues to teach to this day. 2011 he will contribute to various courses and teach a seminar to first year MBA students called “Business and Success”. Bruner is one of the world’s few blogging business school deans. He comments on life, business and current events in his popular Dean’s Blog

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