Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Military boot camp for MBA students in Canada? Really?

In 1961, while pledging a fraternity, we called it “hazing”!

Today, following an extensive report on CBC’s The National, The Queen’s MBA program has put their students through an exhaustive and exhausting weekend of extreme training in team building, stress management and endurance management. Operated by and sold to the Queen’s administration by a company comprised of ‘special ops’ forces who served in combat in Afghanistan, under the corporate name of Reticle, the program is premised on the notion that, after having endured these experiences, under extreme conditions, these candidates will be better able to sustain their roles in building and growing successful businesses.

Unfortunately, competing for profits, as a goal, is somewhat less honourable than defending one’s country. Linking the goals as comparable, elevates (or more honestly reduces) the expectations on potential business leaders to their physical, emotional, psychic and spiritual limits. “Finding your limits” is a phrase that was sprinkled throughout the report and presumably the weekend. And secretly planting a “shit disturber’ inside the student group made for some predictable tensions, as candidates took sides in support of the dissident, and others in strong opposition. Team building, under the rubric, “are you in or out?” was an obvious test of commitment, determination and an acceptable method of testing the mettle of the candidates. In the midst of open conflict, without the opportunity for the professional and less extreme negotiating skills, candidates were being tested on their willingness to submit to the inordinate pressures that, it has to be assumed, are likely in the “war room” of the corporate sector.

Militarizing the corporate world, as implanted in the United States corporate culture, in a country in which the highest service one can offer is to enlist in some arm of the military establishment, is hardly a concept Canadians seek to import from our southern neighbour. Envisioning the university as an institution that strives to emulate Harvard (“Harvard North”) paves the way for the decisions needed to integrate the “boot camp” training for MBA students. Hierarchical in the extreme, dedicated to generating obedient clones, subservient to all authority figures, and thereby predictive of absolute control in the business model, this type of boot camp is not only the wrong instructional model for a graduate business school.

It is the antithesis of the kind of attitude, ethic and expectation that needs to be instituted in all of our organizations. Hard power, under the extreme fatigue imposed by the timetable and the programmed activities, is not the kind of expenditure that corporate investors need to be voting for, at their company’s AGM. In fact, the introduction of what the military and the business world would consider “soft skills” like listening, identifying the kind of feedback that is imprinted in each and every conversation, both formal and informal, and negotiating skills, without the kind of “clock-pressure” of the last thirty seconds of a basketball game, would make much more long-term personal and professional sustainability.

Becoming a slave to the bottom line, to the clock, to the latest stock prices, to the latest profitability quotient….these are precisely the goals that result in overcrowded cardiac wards, intensive care units, and oncology treatments. Turning the corporate executive suites into mini-operating rooms, where life-and-death dramas are taking place 24-7, 365, is a distortion not only of the reality of the business decisions that are necessary (even surgical procedures are debated, dissected and monitored in medical conferences, especially for the most serious) and the operating room is the theatre for the most highly skilled surgeons to do what they have been trained to do. There is really no equivalent to the master surgeon in the corporate world, at least not in the executive suite. Decisions in those rooms involve so many unpredictable variables, including many which outside the sphere of even the most nuanced digital instruments, and the most sophisticated interpretation of meta-data. Emergency rooms, too, have trained triage units, personnel who can discern the relative importance of each patients’ presenting symptoms. Those decisions, in a corporate setting, are made by teams of competing personal agendas, operating ostensibly on the premise that the more profit the company makes the better the decision. How can anyone believe that committing to such a goal can be, or should be, compared with or equated to the life-saving premise (and the do no harm commitment) of the medical code of ethics?

The battlefield too is an inappropriate comparative model, unless we have come to the point where the kind of military discipline and compliance, including the kind of court martial punishments for deviation from orders, are now the acceptable and accepted norm. And if that is where the corporate world is, or presumes to arrive, then there can be little doubt that more Volkswagen deceptions on emissions testing and Takata’s full awareness of the dangers of their airbags while marketing them to car makers who also knew of the dangers to their potential customers will march headlong into the tort courts, spiking both the legal bills and the retail prices of too many of our products, not to mention the dangers to our lives.

If I were a member of the Senate of Queen’s University, today, I would be asking for an inquiry into this “academic decision” even in the face of the “arbiter” that speaks to “intellectual freedom” that is allegedly the moniker of the university culture. These students did not enlist in the Canadian Armed Forces. These students did not enlist in the special ops sector of those forces. These students, some of whom admittedly had their sights focused on becoming the next generation of “dragons” in the corporate hierarchy, need a much more concentrated and deliberate exposure to the human side of their enterprize.

Transferring the “human side of the enterprise” to those employee assistance programs takes away from the integral and ethical dimensions of the corporate culture, leaving those in supervising positions focused exclusively on the behavioural objectives, committing to company policy, committing to company goals, and thereby committing to company generation of profits and the primary, if not the exclusive goal to be evaluated in each “performance review”. While the maintenance of confidentiality in the interface between one’s private life and the public performance inside the organization, so too is the manner and the agenda items on which supervisors and their supervisees interact. Directives like “you must never raise your voice” are inconceivable unless and until one spends the time to investigate and to assess the “full story” of what gave rise to the heightened volume in the voice. Dividing that job off to the EAP’s leaves the climate and culture in the office outside of the responsibility of those in leadership.

It is the kind of “balkanizing” that Mike Harris imposed on the counties, the districts and the towns and cities when he unloaded provincial responsibility for public services on a tax base that was obviously unable to meet those needs. Today, we all drive on roads that are beating our cars to rattle-traps because of his “extreme decision” all to shed legitimate responsibilities from the provincial coffers, without having to be accountable for the results.

It used to be that taking a job at McDonald’s was one step an adolescent could and did take to prepare for the work world in which s/he would compete for the rest of his/her adult life. And the culture of McDonald’s, while admittedly hierarchical, was one from which one could withdraw and research and find alternatives. And MBA program that seeks to put their students in an extreme “combat” situation for a sustained period of 36-48 hours begs the question of what aspects of the fully rounded curriculum are being avoided.

In theology school, hours were dedicated to the task of what we then called ‘holy hand-waving’ or more euphemistically, presiding over the eucharist, while not a single minute was dedicated to  the matter of “conflict management and resolution”. There is a reasonable likelihood that a similar imbalance is operating in this latest imitation of the least admirable aspects of the United States’ culture.

Caveat emptor!

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