Learning fast and slow – Educating and Credentialing

Earlier this month the Financial Post magazine did its feature on MBA programs part of which was MBA alumni commenting on how their education contributed to their success. Ellis Jacob (CEO of Cineplex) and Jennifer Reynolds (CEO of Women in Capital Markets) both provided excellent reinforcement of the benefits of getting a grounding in business education. From my perspective as an instructor in an MBA program, this is  heartening reinforcement from the real world.

An additional common theme was a little less comforting to me: both of these leaders talked about the drive to complete the program as quickly as possible. I understand this urgency, and my discomfort is not so much in a student being anxious to get on with their career, but in the temptation to see the gaining of a credential as the secret to success rather than the rigour and thinking skills that one should develop in such a program.

Given their impressive accomplishments, I am convinced that neither of these CEOs think that learning to run a businesses comes in the form of a crash course. Ms. Reynold heads an organization that advocates for women in a sector that is heavily male-dominated for reasons that can’t easily be explained in this day and age. Mr. Jacob has to deal with an entertainment industry that has seen “Silver Screen” experiences shift from IMAX to iPhone. Likely, the most tangible learning from their respective business programs was in understanding fundamental drivers and how to adapt to change. (This means that an MBA circa 1977 or 1998 sets you up to remain current.)

In the Nobel-prize-winning work Think Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman shares how ill equipped we are to make reasoned decisions because the part of our brain that houses this competency is lazy and is quick to defer to our automatic but less thoughtful brain. Rushing through an MBA program may feel like speed meditating for quick enlightenment.

The somewhat clichéd description of higher education can be “learning how to think.” From my experience with business education (on both sides of the chalk), the real world is a wonderful, yet unforgiving forum to test your thinking and your credentials. As MBAs become more pervasive in the workplace, my hope is that the “slow learning” at the school of the real world further strengthens the educational grounding and helps this particular credential to improve with experience.