• Can you really study business without experiencing it?

    by  • May 28, 2013 • Schools and Communities • 0 Comments

    Let's make work experience meaningful to students, universities and businesses. Tall order?

    Show a caveman a wheel and ask them to imagine an airplane.  Can business students imagine business just by reading about it?

    Earlier this month I had the pleasure and the privilege to spend a day with two lovely and intelligent young men. One is currently a first-year university student. He is reading a Bachelor’s in Business Administration, and has a great passion for the topic. The other is a solicitor with a passion for travel, currently working in the local council.

    During the day, the student had an opportunity (or two) to read through his text book, preparing for an essay he is due to hand in. The textbook – Organisational Behaviour. The topic of the essay – managing personalities in the workplace.

    Soon enough, we three engaged in conversation about the different types of personality mapping tools that exist in the market and the validity they hold. The solicitor was of the mind that such tools have the potential to marginalise people. I suggested that any tool in the wrong hands can cause more damage than good. The student seemed a bit surprised to learn of the plethora of tools that are out there, as did he for the fact some target personality and others – behaviour.

    Frame of reference – and lack of

    Quickly the conversation progressed to working in remote teams and then on to outsourcing. The student had many (very pertinent!) questions about the pros and cons. The solicitor and I, both veterans of working with outsourced/shared services as well as forming parts of them, attempted to walk the student through a hypothetical scenario. “What would you do if you had a problem with an team member” we asked him, tried to coax answers out of him and then placing myriad of barriers that a shared or outsourced service are likely to throw in.

    Sadly, the scenario practice did not come off as swimmingly as we had anticipated. The reason – lack of real life experience. The student, who never actually spent a reasonable amount of time in an office to experience the dynamics of teams first hand, fell short of understanding the implications. It was hard for him to really understand what happens when those become a shared service, or are outsourced (at the high price of redundancies). He had no experience he could draw on, nor did he have a frame of reference.

    As a friend of mine recently suggested (on a different matter), “it’s like showing a caveman a wheel and then asking them to imagine an airplane”.

    Similarly, I am not surprised that the distinction between managing personalities and managing behaviours was such a surprise to him. Although one can conceptualise the hypothetical difference, actually observing how personalities manifest into behaviours in the workplace is a much stronger learning experience than postulating it on an intellectual level.

    This begs the question – can you really read a Bachelor’s in Business Administration without having real, valid and hands-on work experience?

    I am well aware that many universities offer sandwich courses, whereby students are required to collate “Learning at Work” experiences. I am aware of the “Work Experience” programmes in further education. I am also aware that some universities encourage students to have a 6-month placement to put context to their studies. All this is well and good, but do the universities actually confirm that there really is learning taking place, rather than simply giving businesses some free labour (that usually gets asked to do filing and copying and go to the bank and make coffee)?

    Making work experience worth while for all

    I clearly recall times when I managed teams and had work experience people come on board, both at secondary school and university levels. All these experiences left a rather bad taste in my mouth as a manager, mostly because the students didn’t have a clear idea of what it was they were attempting to achieve. And – once they clocked on to the fact they were cheap labour, they stopped trying to be useful and simply rode the experience out, with as little effort as possible.

    Now, I ask you – people who work in businesses – this: would you not rather have students have meaningful experiences that actually enrich their knowledge and frame of reference to better prepare them for work?

    I ask you – people who teach and lecture about business – this: would you not rather have your students have meaningful experience that allow them to test their knowledge with valid experiences that will enrich the discussion and broaden their horizon while preparing them for the world of work?

    I’m guessing “Yes” on both counts, but would like to hear directly from you. Please comment!


    Photo by gozdeo, via sxc.hu

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