Southeast Asian B-Schools’ Western Tilt

Are western management ideas crippling Asian business education?

In today's rapidly urbanizing Southeast Asia, upward career mobility requires a diploma, degree, and some form of post-graduate qualifications, particularly within desirable publicly listed companies.

However, closer scrutiny of what is taught at these business schools shows a lingering a colonial hangover and psychological dependence on western ideas, an irony in a region where most governments publicly tout their own national values. Business schools stick steadfastly to occidental business curricula.

Business, entrepreneurship, and management courses are the fastest growing areas in Southeast Asian education. Along with ICT, these are the most popular areas within both the private and public higher education sectors. The relatively low overhead and operational cost is a financial windfall for colleges and universities. Business education has become the cash cow of colleges and universities.

What makes these courses financially lucrative is the relatively low cost of teaching resources for basic courses compared to other disciplines. Very little infrastructure aside from classrooms and lecture theatres is required. A great number of business schools develop curriculum around an array of international-edition US sourced textbooks on offer by major educational publishers strongly competing for business.

Consequently many regional business schools are bureaucratic diploma factories based upon single-textbook unit courses, oriented around exams that at best measure memory and retention rather than creativity and the potential of the student to be innovative. To cap it all off, these schools are burdened with quality assurance processes at administrative and teaching levels. Given the high time commitment needed to adhere to these processes, mediocrity is ensured.

The leaders and teaching staffs have a preference for the imported hype of management gurus who are popular in the media, even if these positivist instruments are not directly suited to the different contexts and varied business situations within the local environment. Local academics educated in the western paradigm locally or abroad are mesmerized by international management gurus.

There is little debate about the fit between western management thinking and the makeup and behavior of local corporations, entrepreneurs, and the general environment. As a consequence, the relevance of many theories has been accepted without question.

For example in the theory area, Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs is accepted into management curriculum where there may be many other more suitable theories and meta-theories that could be advanced. In the contextual area, the legal system, supply chain, where the emphasis on particular marketing tools should lie, interrelationships between people, which all could be described 'as the way of doing things,' makes applying western management theory challenging to say the least.

The preference for the latest popular management knowledge often leads to misinterpretation, as few management and entrepreneur instructors actually have much first-hand business experience. Thus rigid interpretations of management still influence entrepreneurship courses. Many entrepreneurship courses advocate market research through focus groups, which are not suited to new products in developing markets. Business plans are almost always at the central core of any curriculum where there is little evidence that planning leads to success in entrepreneurship.

Business schools further base much of the curriculum upon general misconceptions that both the media and imported textbooks have evolved over the last 15 to 20 years. Entrepreneurship has been glorified by media stories, biographies of successful entrepreneurs, and events like 'entrepreneurship weeks,' 'business plan competitions' and 'entrepreneurship awards.' Course curriculum is shaped in the mold of media-made myths of hi-tech and high-growth entrepreneurs.

Importantly, the US-based business literature reflects the needs of post-industrial society rather than of developing economies. This is partly responsible for one of the biggest tragedies of entrepreneurship education in the region. Very little if any focus is given to various technologies that a potential entrepreneur might require in a new business. The acquisition of technology is one of the greatest difficulties SMEs in developing countries face and little is done within the education sphere to solve this problem.

A graduating student may have acquired some general business skills but has little or no knowledge or access to the means to acquire the knowledge to develop a farm, a small engineering shop, a food manufacturing operation, or a cosmetic manufacturing operation. One can see around the Asean region that it is the non-business schools that show innovation with their outreach programs while business schools fall into the trap of cashing in on their BBA, MBA, and now DBA programs.

Due to the developing nature of most Southeast Asian economies, there should be an emphasis on manufacturing including new product development and manufacturing line and system development. However, business schools in post-industrial societies have largely dropped manufacturing from their curricula due to the cohort's interest in the services sector, where opportunities exist.

This leads to a mismatch of what Southeast Asian business schools offer and what business and entrepreneurship students need. As a result business and entrepreneurship graduates flood out into the market place without any technology skills, crowding the services sector, which is not creating extra employment or real economic growth. Business and entrepreneurship graduate employability is a major issue facing Southeast Asian economies today, with thousands of unemployed business graduates all across the region.

These two issues, technology and pedagogy, require deep thinking. Content and delivery need to be closely examined, experimented with and utilized with close adaptation to the needs of Southeast Asian students, a challenge that requires a large investment in time and staff resources.

To compound the problem further, governments and local corporations have a preference for foreign advisors and consultants, shunning their own, even though foreigners may have little real understanding of local context. This doesn't occur because of any vacuum in knowledge and wisdom of local academics. In fact many Southeast Asian academics are very successful in other universities around the world. Some have written very sound academic dissertations and hypothesis but fail to get them to mass popularity. Rather they sell a few hundred copies and can be found gathering dust on library shelves.

This colonial hangover is holding back indigenous intellectual development and preserving neo-colonialism at a time when the US and Europe are far from possessing a monopoly of new ideas.

The irony is that Asian ideas have more influence on Western management thought than in Asian thinking. The only probable exception is Confucianism which could cautiously be associated with the structure, process, and strategies of family owned Chinese businesses. Although Sun Tzu's 'The Art of War' and Buddhist Dharma originated in Asia, it is Western management thinkers who have applied their respective philosophies to management, at least in these contemporary times. Although the Islamic 'Tawhid' is 1500 years old, it is probably only now that it is being considered seriously as a management philosophy.

Business school deans tend to play the role of patriarch, which often degrades into crude authoritarianism. Consequently major positions within the hierarchy tend to go to those are liked and favored rather than those who have worked meritoriously, successfully, and are qualified. Consequently many business schools in Southeast Asia see personal power as the prize and Machiavellian behavior as the norm. Motivation among staff at the school will most probably be very low.

There is a drastic regional shortage of business and entrepreneurship lecturers. Stringent criteria for lecturers eliminate the potential to employ mature, experienced practitioners or practademics. For example under the regulations of one aspiring university in Malaysia that portrays itself as the “Harvard of the East”, it would not be possible to employ people like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg or the late Steve Jobs, even as adjunct, due to issues of qualifications. Thus those that gain employment within the region's colleges and universities have formal qualifications, usually without much experience if any.

Business and entrepreneurship academics consequently tend to lack the depth of knowledge about what they teach and rely on textbooks and popular management books. This lack of depth of knowledge in many fields leads to a lack of confidence to develop curriculum outside the familiar available textbooks, thus inhibiting the ability to provide an education according to local needs. With this comes a reinforcement of an unconscious bias towards western literature as local literature is still rare and far between and in many cases is just a translation of existing foreign textbooks. Any original local material usually lacks peer acceptance due to the lack of ability of many to critically appraise it.

Southeast Asian business schools have developed into a rut of pursuing quantity for the windfall incomes they can accumulate through popular products like the MBA. Foreign universities, through setting up branches or strategic alliances are also cashing in on the rapid growth of business education, further perpetuating the myth that foreign business theories are the first class product. They have adopted the classic post-colonial market strategy of importing their product into a local market with minimum modification and exploiting the market to the maximum.

This rut goes deep into the structure and processes of local colleges and universities. ISO quality accreditations and their logos are prominently displayed as symbols of quality, even though they have little or no relevance. ISO standards make no claims about product quality or relevance whatsoever and only mislead the public. The resources needed to implement these useless ISO standards are taken from potential academic development resources. This leaves a single textbook approach to courses, predominately delivered through formal lectures, rigid assessment and examination criteria and reliance on outdated curriculum development tools like Bloom's taxonomy. The result of this is a sanitized teaching paradigm which doesn't reflect the real business environment, leaving students ill-prepared for the outside world. This 'cut and paste' culture without questioning and adaptation is holding back the development of business education in the region.

Of late, universities have realized the need for research to build esteem and gain rankings. However this has been turned into a meaningless chase of key performance indicator (KPI) figures. Many new academic journals are cashing in on this unhealthy focus on SCOPUS indexing and now offer pay for publishing arrangements, rather than the traditional double blind peer review system.

To date, most local research has tended to emulate other research, applying theory to local contexts, rather than developing indigenous hypotheses. This lack of originality is preventing the rise in international stature of local business academics and is the loss of a great opportunity to develop Asian based management knowledge.

Local academics have not asked whether there is a distinctively Asian type of management based upon traditional philosophy. Management theory has been something secular in Asia in contrast with the west where it has been tainted with spiritualism. Asian academics have preferred to keep both issues in separate boxes. May be it is just from lack of confidence to think outside their trained discipline and merge new ideas into their existing knowledge.

The education gap between Southeast Asia, Europe, Australia, and the US is going to be felt for a long time. Part of the problem is resistance to change. Part of the problem is the lack of skilled, experienced and knowledgeable people. However the rigidity of educational institutions is something that can be solved through some visionary thinking.

There is also another problem. It is apparent that creativity is an important aspect of education, which is deeply lacking in the Asian curriculum within most of the region. In business and entrepreneurship, creativity is vital in the areas of opportunity recognition and construction, strategy development and execution, marketing, new product development, and solving general problems related to entrepreneurship. Creativity, rather than intelligence appears to be a more critical factor in achieving success.

It could be argued that Asean's failure to develop contextually relevant theories and corresponding positivist practices, where instead culturally unsuited practices are utilized, is a missed opportunity to develop new forms of new dynamic capabilities and competitive advantage within the region.

This is the challenge to management academics and practitioners in Asean. It is the task of looking through the rich history, culture, society, stories, and philosophies of the region for the inspiration to develop and construct homegrown management ideas, rather than importing ideas developed in other parts of the world, which are suitable for those parts of the world.

Confucian, Buddhist, Strategy, and Islamic institutes exist all over the region, but there has been little focus on developing these philosophies as management paradigms. Today there is an intense vacuum of original management thinkers.

(Murray Hunter is an Australian academic teaching in a Malaysian university)

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