The Business School

A contention in higher education is often the Business School. What do Business Students study, actually? Can Business be taught and learnt in an academic setting like the university? Do all Business students only learn how to craft PowerPoint slides; write lengthy reports and class participate? Just like how the notion of a liberal arts college education is highly contested and debated, the Business School itself — as an institution for what it values and teaches, has and is still going through considerable debate.

Here, I would like to add in my own opinion and insights after 2 years of education in a business school. I would like to believe that I am at a wonderful intersection in life such that I can meaningfully contribute my own sharing here. So, why do I consider 2 years a good measure? Well, it is not that long a span of time for you to ‘forget’ how you are before you matriculate officially. Also, it is not that short a time for you to give any inconclusive and unsubstantial answers. I am also very fortunate to be part of a wider community in university that embraces curiosity and constantly explores questions that most people will not seek to ask.

Yet, more importantly, I felt that it is always good to stop for a moment and reflect what we have done and learnt so far in university. I will be leaving for New York in exactly 2 weeks’ time, so I would like to critically examine what I have learn in my 2 years in NUS Business School. I believe it would be doubly beneficial and insightful if you — the reader, would feel free to add in your own opinions as well.

Let us begin. Now, let’s think for a second. Recall the last conversation where you or your friends talked about Business School? Whether you are in Business School itself or you have friends or acquaintance that are from Business School, there will be bound to be discussion over the usefulness of a Business School undergraduate degree indeed. Yes, most likely it goes along the lines of how ‘useless’, ‘competitive’, ‘realistic’ and ‘bullshit’ it is. So, I did a simple Google search (5-seconds search) and found the following results:

  • “8 Reasons Not to get a Business Degree” (CBS News)
  • “Is a Business Degree as Worthless as Everyone Says It is” (College Confidential)
  • “Are undergrad business majors/schools useless?” (WallStreetOasis)

Indeed, it is not merely a localized mentality that debates the value or even intellectual merits of Business School. At this point, you must be wondering: is Business School indeed that useless?

So, like any other hardworking college student, I did some extremely preliminary Primary and Secondary “research”. Essentially, it’s just basic reading up to add more depth into my articles. Primary research-wise, I merely talked to friends from various backgrounds — people in Business School itself, people who have transferred out of Business School and people from other disciplines as well. For secondary “research”, I read up on other business school curriculums, especially that of more reputable colleges and even what MBAs aim to teach. I realized that this is an extremely complicated and contentious subject matter. There are tens and thousands of possible research questions or topics that we can discuss till the cows come home and even go back and come home again. To scope my research, I mainly focused on 3 broad themes:

  • Why did you choose Business School in the first place? What are your initial expectations and considerations?
  • After going through Business School for a number of years, can you concretely and passionately put across what you have learnt?
  • Can you imagine the ideal Business School? How will it be like?

Here are some of my extremely generalized conclusions:

People who enter Business School can usually be classified into 4 broad groups:

* Group A: People who entered Business School with the intention of doing Finance as a specialization and dreams of IB/PE/HF

* Group B: People who chose Business School and specifically Accounting because it is a professional degree

* Group C: People who chose Business School because they want to start a business in the future (Unfortunately, I fell into this classification. Why unfortunate? I will elaborate further on.)

* Group D: People who do not know why exactly they chose to come Business School or they find it generally more interesting than Maths, Physics, Engineering or they fail to make the cut for Medical/Law School or simply have no interest for other disciplines (Again, this is an extremely generalization and derived from mere observations and interactions)

So, who are the more vocal critics of the Business School as an institution? I realized that there are 3 broad classifications:

* Group X: Current students from Business School itself. They usually lament about the excessive group projects, pretentious class participation, and useless group project mates who are burdens, lack of rigor in curriculum or even the lack of intellectual fulfillment.

* Group Y: Students from other faculties: Computing/Engineering/Maths or any of the other more ‘rigorous’ disciplines in this case. Their primary critique is usually how Business School only teaches business school kids common sense and how business school kids are grounded in ‘management skills’ that detach them from actual groundwork.

* Group Z: Students from the ‘liberal arts’ or humanities (usually). Business School is usually criticized for its practical approach to higher education and sometimes, it is too practical and realistic that it does not teach you how to think and how to learn.

Why is there a need to segment current students and critiques arbitrarily? I realized that different segments do have different concerns and experiences and I hope that this post can help to clarify various concerns of different parties.

First, let us examine the origins of Business School. What is the first Business School and what is its purpose? It seems that the first Business School is ESCP Europe and founded in Paris, France in 1819. It was started by renowned economist Jean-Baptiste Say and celebrated trader Vital Roux. So what gave rise to the invention of the ‘business school’ concept? For them, they realized the importance of commerce with an international scope to focus on international trade. By 1825, the class had 30% international students and all students had to study at least 3 out of the 10 languages offered.

Another insightful example would be none other than Wharton School of Business, UPenn. Instituted formally in 1881, it became the first Business School at a university.

Why the need for a formal institutionalization of a Business School? After the 2nd Industrial Revolution in the United States, there were huge economic and social consequences. Industries were forming and their structures were constantly shifting and transforming. With these huge industries forming, owners and managers faced 2 primary problems. First, how do you best operate a business that is getting too huge for you to manage? How do you maintain raw inputs to come in at minimal unit costs? How do you maintain optimal capacity and production output? Second, with increased production capacities and possibilities for increased profits, how do you sell these immense outputs amidst increasing competition from other players?

Owners and managers, at that point of time, realized that they lacked sufficient academic knowledge or theories and had no prior past experiences for them to negotiate the optimal decision to make. There was a pressing need for a formal institution for future owners and managers to get a proper foundational understanding and gain prior experiences in a safe environment, before they assume actual control.

You might then ask, what is the wider purpose of understanding the origins and history of the Business School? Well, I would say that if we simply examine the Business School as an intellectual exercise, its origins and purpose are grounded in a reality that sees the need for it. It has endured and continued to thrive for the next 200 years. So… there must be a purpose for it right?

For non-Business School students, allow me to give an extremely brief introduction to the curriculums of most Business Schools. Business School is generally structured to give you an introduction of core business concepts in the first 1–2 years:

  • Accounting
  • Marketing
  • Communications
  • Operations
  • Finance
  • Business Leadership
  • Business Law
  • Management
  • Entrepreneurship
  • Strategy

It is true that a couple of modules here and there might not be sufficient, but I believe they are adequate in providing a brief introduction and overview of what each component entails. After going through all these, if you would like, you can choose to specialize in any of the key business functions, be it Marketing, Finance, Operations, Management, Accounting etc. Specializing, in this aspect, simply means that you would then take higher-level modules that examine each business function at a more critical level. — Now, let me share my own experience and insights, by addressing common myths. Like anything in life, black and white are rarely segregated clearly and most answers come in different shades and variations of greys. My answers and experience will come in various versions of greys as well.

Myth 1: Business School is all fluff and does not teach you anything concrete.

That depends on what you call ‘fluff’ and ‘concrete’. I often like to examine Business School as a concept. A Business or Company can be likened to a human with his/her various parts. Finance, Marketing, Operations etc. are all individual components of the human. For instance, Finance is usually likened to the blood flowing through the human. Cash is King, they say and credit is extremely important. Marketing is often concerned with the aesthetics of the human itself. How does it brand itself? You get my point.

Each business component is rather hard to get right. Case in point: people often consider Marketing a rather easy discipline. However, do they really know Marketing? The holy grail of Marketing is: “Customers do not need a ¾ inch drill, they need a ¾ inch hole!” Packed within this simple one sentence lies an entire ocean of wisdom. How much do you understand the needs of your customers? Who are various segments of them? Which segment of the marketing funnel is your company lacking in? Who are your customers, really? Or, who are the competition? Direct? Indirect? To what degree do you draw the line? The issue is that, if you really want to be good at Marketing, it is really about understanding the nuances of the marketing funnel, the various segmentation techniques or perhaps, even how to best utilize your limited Marketing budget to attain the most optimal outcomes.

However, the most beautiful thing that I love about all these is not how you study each of these components in isolation. Instead, it is how they come together and it is called Strategy. Strategy, to many, is a complicated term and they do not see the point of it. However, in my opinion, business strategy is an easily understandable concept. The actual derivation and execution is the hard part.So, what is Business Strategy? It is about how you assess the macro-environment, how you assess your competitors, your customers and your company itself to arrive at the best decision at that point of time based on the current context. How can you assess your competitors or your company if you are not strong in your fundamentals? How do you determine the strength and weaknesses of your competitors if you do not even have a preliminary understanding of their operations? Or even their financial situation? The thing is, financial statements reveal business strategies. Understanding financial statements give you a glimpse into the bulk of their expenses, where they intend to head for in the future etc. So, why is business strategy so important? It is because real life managerial decisions are all applications of the same business mindset on how you think about strategies. And, you can only think about strategies properly and see how everything comes together if you understand each part well.

The above bolded statement is the reason for the extremely popular case method at Harvard Business School and many other reputable business schools. What is the case method? The case method is simply a detachment from the usual method where lecturers or tutors feed you information and concepts. Instead, students are supposed to negotiate through real-life cases and understand the underlying concepts. Why is the case method so important, I feel? Well, if you really think about it, what happens in real life business cases and whatever decisions you make at that very context are analogous to how you think through the various cases in Business School itself. For instance, have you properly assessed the competitors yet? Based on this market structure, do you think that the current revenue model of this company is optimal? How best to price this new product in the market? Can the company, based on its current financials, sustain the competition? What is the optimal financial structure for a company in this current situation? Most importantly, context is key. Everyday, business environment changes, consumer tastes and preferences change and government regulations change. How do you give the textbook recommendation based on this current set of regulations, this market structure to fit these current set of tastes and preferences of consumers? The thing is, you can’t. Even if you can, it probably sucks because you fail to take something into account. Yet, the beauty of the case method or what we learn in Business School (ideally) is that it equips you with the mindset of examining all various company parts and the skills to properly conduct the analysis to arrive at themost optimal decision at that current context. Do you find that intellectually rigorous? Perhaps, not in the most traditional sense of philosophy, engineering, applied mathematics or so forth. But, I find it extremely exciting and dynamic. And I derive much joy from all these.

Myth 2: A Business Degree teaches you how to start a business.

Uhh, no it does not and it never promises that. The Business Degree, at least in the most traditional sense, equips you with the mindset, skills and capabilities to function within an existing company with an organized structure already. Look towards Myth 1. Human Resources function is already in place, the Finance department is ready etc. What it does, on the other hand, is to give you a good foundation to better understand entrepreneurship. To me, entrepreneurship is part-Art and part-Science. Why so? Many people believe that entrepreneurship cannot be taught, you have to go into it and feel it. I call it bullshit.

Entrepreneurship is an extremely rigorous discipline by itself: How do you define product-market fit? How do you validate customers? What is a convertible note, capped at $5 million? What does a $4m pre-valuation mean? What is your customer lifetime value? Can you detail your exact go-to-market strategies? What do you do if your competitors’ customer acquisition costs are substantially lower than yours? What is the rationale for this specific UI/UX design?

Granted, the skillsets of a ‘traditional’ marketer are different from that of a startup marketer or growth hacker or whatever recent buzzword. A growth hacker needs to understand and execute A/B testing, different channels for customer on-boarding, go-to-market strategies or even how to optimize conversion rates. All these specific skills and perhaps, even mindsets differ from that of a traditional marketer. But, I do believe that it helps in the foundations and puts you in better stead to understand and master the various concepts and skills. You understand the importance of customer discovery, their needs, how to go about segmentation, market entry etc. So, does a Business Degree teach you how to start a business? Absolutely not. What it does is to give you a foundational understanding of a business structure and concepts if you wish your startup to scale properly and be sustainable in the future.

Myth 3: Business School is just for the purpose of knowing more people.

This myth is highly contentious because some people are already inclined towards networking etc. There is a purpose why group projects, class participation and presentations are so highly prized in Business School. Because they matter. A great deal. However, I think that these ‘soft skills’ are highly innate and un-quantifiable, therefore most people do not actively consider them. Also, since you can’t judge them quantitatively or objectively, it is difficult for yourself to measure your progress. Have you improved in group negotiations, discussions or generally how you interact with people? You might have, you might have not. It is difficult to quantify but I believe that all these are skills that can be improved. And most people do improve in all these skills over practices and practices and practices.What they do not realize is that these kinds of improvements do not just happen overnight, instead they are small, cumulative improvements over a period of time. Since they are small, cumulative improvements everyday or so, we often overlook them and undermine their importance.

Well, can’t we learn and improve all of these skills elsewhere? Definitely you can. I’m just saying that there are more opportunities and platforms for you to further enhance them here in Business School and all these opportunities are embedded within the curriculum, within the assessment methods and so forth.

The issue then, is not the system. It is the individual within the system. Business School merely provides a platform for all of these to happen and it is still up to the individual Business student to utilize this platform optimally. Do you have the appetite, desire and drive? Good for you, if you possess them. This concept goes for networking as well. Essentially, they are all People Skills and Sales Skills. Networking carries with it the extremely unfavorable notion of transactional relationships. However, is that supposed to be the case? Have you been ‘successful’ at networking if you want to build transactional relationships? Many a times, you might be unsuccessful. Networking is actually about building genuine relationships with others and often giving more than you would want to take. All these are considered People and Sales skills; you are ‘selling’ yourself without being extremely irritating to others. I consider them skills because very few people are talented with them but fortunately, they can be honed easily. Again, the concept of the individual comes into play here once more. It is up to you to practise, up to you to understand your shortfalls and improve on them.

Here marks 3112 words.

I am both a NUS and a Business School ambassador. So, I might be inclined towards being overtly optimistic and passionate over such issues. Perhaps, the glasses through which I view such issues are rose-tinted. Perhaps, I am not critical enough. Stated above is all of my own personal experiences and insights.

Yet, I consider it extremely vital to really sit down and think about what we have learnt so forth. Allow me to lay out the 3 broad themes once again:

1) Why did you choose Business School in the first place? What are your initial expectations and considerations?

2) After going through Business School for a number of years, can you concretely and passionately put across what you have learnt?

3) Can you imagine the ideal Business School? How will it be like?

Most importantly, what can we change about this existing Business School system or even the Business School concept?

Do ponder through such questions. It would be great if you already have concrete answers way before. If you do not have, it is still good to examine why you do not have these answers yet.

Once again, I would love to hear all of your responses if possible.