Dean's Corner: Withering the Mind Trap of SOPs: Reviving the Essence of Business Education through Human Governance

Posted January 01, 2013 by Arfah Salleh - Professor of Human Governance, President and CEO - Putra Business School, Universiti Putra Malaysia

Back in 2008, during my sabbatical after serving as dean of the Graduate School of Management UPM (GSM-UPM), a public university business school, I co-authored, with a professor of risk management whose academic background is nuclear reactor science, Human Governance: A Paradigm Shift in Governing Corporations.

The book stems from our mutual desire to see a shift in emphasis away from the traditional governance of corporations, which is anchored by robotic rules and expectations, to one centered on the role of humans. In Human Governance we note that our motivation in writing the book was not to recount, or lay blame for, the recent, highly-publicized string of corporate misdeeds. Rather, we were convinced that a book on governing as human beings was needed, since organizational behavior is but a projection of human behavior which, in turn, is a shadow of our essence.

In short, Human Governance is about an internal guiding light that helps humans do the right things. Human Governance is not a substitute for corporate governance, but once human governance is actualized, corporate governance will come alive. Subscribing to Virginia Woolf's creed that what matters is not so much the end we reach as our manner in reaching it, we stress that, in this business called life, in making decisions and arriving at judgments we must differentiate between the path of action and the consequences of taking the path. We also highlight many of life's other truisms, including the fact that one's risk appetite can influence the path which one takes.

Today, I am entrusted to be serving as president of Putra Business School (PUTRA)—the earlier GSM-UPM, transformed into an autonomous new entity administered by a not-for-profit foundation.

What Does Human Governance, and My Experience as a Leader, Have to do with Business Education?

In the context of making decisions and judgments—EVERYTHING! I am eager to share my take on the fissure that exists in today's business education that so reveres the reliance on compliance with outside-in procedures and set processes.

Quinn Mills of Harvard Business School distinguishes between leaders, managers and administrators. Mintzberg maintains his criticism that today's b-schools have produced MBAs, not managers. And I agree with them! Traversing the transformation plane of a public university b-school in its entirety, I experienced a terrain, not a map. I now appreciate the need to bring back the very purpose of business education, which we at PUTRA believe is to nurture leaders who can lead and manage, not to produce graduates who merely possess MBAs in form. In short, our mission is to guide potential leaders to go beyond SOPs, and actualize human governance.

Leadership is EXPERIENCE

In hindsight, not having an MBA degree perhaps freed me from the rigidity of compliance procedures. I had to learn leading and managing organizations through experience. I had no manual of prior classroom takeaways to which I could refer. And I discovered that in my earlier position as dean, I could get by with putting into place the processes and procedures which align with the bigger university agenda. Conferring with my counterparts within and outside the university did help, but mainly served as reassurance that I was on the right track. In the hierarchy of decision-making and arriving at judgments, I would say that I was mostly an administrator ensuring that the operational machinery was constantly oiled. Because the school needed to conform to typical academic-performance measures, established worldwide, the route was less blurred in terms of KPIs. A bigger challenge was how to motivate colleagues to work together to achieve set goals within specified time-frames.

But taking on the role of steering the school to the next dimension of full autonomy, as President and CEO, was a completely new experience. While the mandate was clear for the new organization, the path was not. Along with the protocols and, at times, bureaucracy to be observed, came the management of human conundrum—manufacturing consent included, as well as resistance to change. All of this necessitated a constantly changing role, between manager and leader. It was no longer about observing SOPs, for none existed in the first place! Words can never capture the full story—negotiating the troughs and hills of the terrain could only be appreciated through experience.

For instance, drawing up an organization structure that allows for seamless "crossovers" of functions, and a salary and benefit structure that incorporates elements of human governance, balancing between signaling appreciation of human potential while not short-changing anyone, was difficult to say and more difficult to do.

Presenting the strategic plan to a Board of Directors was a strategy in itself. Teaching strategy as a case study, and the reality of pursuing a given strategy, are two very different things. But teaching strategy as one who has designed and implemented strategies makes a huge difference. The opportunity to experience different-style board chairmanship during the setting-up phase was invaluable. Clearly, the CEO-chairman relationship is vital in determining the path a CEO takes in leading the organization. To be a visionary leader, instead of one who is merely bottom-line-centered, requires unison of management's and board's courage and faith—total entrepreneurial traits with risk-taking willingness. But central to all of this is the trust empowered to management.

Where Does that Leave Our MBA Today?

I do not have an answer that fits every dean's bill. But I do know this: As long as we remain bonded to the SOP-modality founded upon conventional classical science of an objective, deterministic model of business with an "either-or" frame of thinking, we should be contented with churning out administrators rather than managers and leaders. To move away from this, we need to assess whether our curriculum truly embodies the essence of business education that reflects the reality of the workplace, or is one based on flawed assumptions. But where is our point of departure?

Searching for a Route to Re-Connect

Having discovered the contrasting ontological worldview of reality of contemporary science vis-a-vis the earlier tradition, we at PUTRA reckon that as business educators, we need to question our individual philosophical assumptions of science and the cosmos. Though initially hard to believe, gradually we came to terms with the fact that quantum physics has debunked many earlier classical science conceptions. The wholeness of a universe as a web of interconnected relationships of a subjective nature, where the observer is non-separable from the observed, embodies today's science. The fact that only about four percent of the universe is observable and material makes qualitative human experiences and intuition more relevant—emphasizing the significance of human governance. What is even more intriguing is that most of today's technological advances have also embodied the tenets of quantum physics. Mobile phone technology, for instance, can be credited to the non-locality principle, and the list goes on. As such, we just had to let go and accept that our earlier worldview of science, based on the classical paradigms of the Newtonian-Cartesian order, is applicable only to specific cases.

With a new lens of perception of scientific reality, we moved on to evaluate how to translate the discovery into the realm of our course modules at PUTRA, through human governance. We do recognize the lack of documented evidence of prior initiatives at other business schools. But the limitation of many of the long-established management theories founded upon classical science was too glaring for us to ignore. We began to reconnect with our Eastern origin. As Easterners, whether Chinese, Indians, or Malays, the default premise is of wholeness. Our culture is about maintaining harmony—balancing between the relationship among fellow humans and other created beings—the horizontal, and with one of transcendental facet—the vertical. To us, governance has always been from the internal—the heart (Xin or Qalb)—while knowledge is beyond simply that which is observed. Somehow, in our pursuit of professional qualifications, deeply rooted in the Western Eurocentric-thinking paradigm, and devoid of the vertical, we have abandoned our philosophical belief system. With such realization, the formula for us to reinstate human governance and reconnect between the horizontal and the vertical dimensions of human nature was uncovered—quantum physics!

PUTRA's Direction

PUTRA is still in its infancy. We have yet to replace our MBA curriculum in totality. Nonetheless, based on the feedback from our first cohort of students who attended our maiden 12-week human governance course, we are inspired to pursue our core business of nurturing human leaders based on contemporary science that parallels Eastern philosophy and native and religious traditions. For that purpose, we need a critical mass. We are now on a faculty recruitment drive—our single most crucial appointment criterion being a belief system that parallels ours. While the outcome will be unfolded only sometime in the future, we take comfort that at least we have embarked on a journey to transform. We are clear in our purpose for existence and the path to take, even when it means replacing the current canvas of our painting for a new one. We move on ...