Malcolm Gladwell discusses business education

Two great minds discussed a number of topics pertinent to current trends in business and economics this past Friday at the Floradale Mennonite Church. The event was put on by the Woolwich Counselling Centre.

Malcolm Gladwell, a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine and author of three best-selling books, including Outliers: The Story of Success and Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, grew up in Elmira, ON. On Friday, Gladwell was accompanied by his old friend Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto.

Among other musings, the two scholars discussed what they view as problems with how business education is conducted– an issue most pertinent to the Laurier community and the university students in attendance.

“[The post-secondary education system] broke business training into a bunch of silos,” said Martin, explaining how most business schools teach disciplines like finance, marketing, accounting and operations separately. “This is not the way the world works.”

Drawing on his personal experience at the University of Toronto, Martin explained the lack of problem-solving students showed once they were in the workforce.

“Only maybe five to 10 per cent of students could actually put those pieces together in an intelligent way that sells,” said Martin. “The other 90 to 95 per cent would go look at a problem and try to cram it into being one that they could solve with the finance tools they had learned.”

Martin and Gladwell discussed how in 1908, there was no such thing as a masters of business administration degree. Now, however, there are about 150,000 granted annually in North America, making up 27 per cent of graduates. Martin explained that with the popularity of MBA degrees, often universities don’t feel the need to alter their teaching strategies.

The two discussed middle-ground solutions for decision-making, instead of traditional trade-off models, as a mechanism that many business students seem to be lacking when they complete their education. Martin and Gladwell saw this as problematic, especially considering the entrepreneurial success of the middle-ground model.

Gladwell used the example of Isadore Sharp, a Canadian businessman and the founder, chairman and CEO of Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, a man he said revolutionized the hotel market when at the time it was “divided into two camps.”

“People did very small hotels which were intimate,” explained Gladwell. “The other model was a really big hotel that allowed you to have a lot of services.”

Sharp did exactly what Gladwell and Martin were doing and combined two models to create his vision for the needs of consumers.

“[Sharp] was able to see that what people thought as being mutually exclusive options could actually be integrated into one solution,” concluded Gladwell. Sharp’s hotels were able to combine the best of large and small-scale hotel chains.

There was discussion surrounding the complexity of this type of entrepreneurship and great business leadership and whether it could be instructed to a student.

Martin maintained that his experience had shown that the type of problem-solving highlighted could be taught to those at even a high school level.

More of a creation of dialogue and an exchanging of ideas, these two world-renowned scholars created an atmosphere that was both thought-provoking and forward-thinking, especially in a region with two universities and numerous businesses which strive toward entrepreneurial and problem-solving excellence.

What the Dog Saw and other Adventures – Malcolm Gladwell’s compilation of his best work for The New Yorker includes:

–”Why some people choke while others panic”

–”Hair dye’s relation to postwar American history”

–”Why there are numerous types of mustard, but only one ketchup”

–”If the birth control pill is ‘natural’ and what it meant to its creator, John Rock”

–”The secrets behind ‘dog whisperer’ Cesar Millan”