Peer Learning is...

Exploring how peer learning helps in our fast-changing world.
Sign up for our short course

IMPM dropped the Harvard case study methodology to develop critical thinking

We say ‘worldly’ instead of ‘global’ because ‘global” implies one size fits all and we want the students to really appreciate the importance of cultural differences.

That's Sourav Mukherji from the Indian Institute of Management. He's talking about the International Masters Program in Practical Management (IMPM), which is delivered jointly with universities in Japan, Brazil, the UK and Canada.

The IMPM is so diverse because it teaches a broad set of mindsets for executives.

The IMPM was set up by Henry Mintzberg at McGill University in Canada, who saw big problems with the case study methodology used to teach MBAs. This approach uses pre-written case studies about historical business decisions, and recreates a version of those decisions in classroom discussions. He elaborates:

The philosophy of the case study method is that you simulate management practice on the basis of reading a 20 page study that’s been written by either a professor or more likely an assistant.

And you’ve got 20 pages, you’ve never met a customer, you’ve never used the product, you may never have heard of the company yesterday.

I think it’s a dreadful simulation because the depth of knowledge is so superficial that all the tacit knowledge that goes into a decision, all that deep understanding of an industry, of the people, of the products, none of that’s there. You’ve read 20 pages. And after you’ve done that hundreds of times, what kind of a manager does it make you?

And any lecturer who's delivered a case study knows that the lecture-hall discussions need to be funnelled in a certain direction for the next part of the case study to follow. These conversations need to be nudged, and sometimes forced.

Case studies are written to be consistently replicable, which means nuances and critical thinking are compromised for simplicity.

And these classroom conversations don't work the same way in every culture. Different cultures have different comfort levels and norms about expressing opinions in front of strangers, in front of groups, or in front of authority. Collectivist cultures tend towards agreement, individualist cultures towards difference. So not only do these conversations lean heavily in different directions, they have different effects on learners.

The Harvard MBA focuses on functional skills - finance, marketing, strategy - and then uses its network to place it's graduates on a fast-track to leadership.

Mintzberg had questioned whether the Harvard MBA education methods that are copied around the world - heavily focused on case studes - really had an effect on the success of it's students.

Business schools like to boast about how many of their graduates have become CEOs -- Harvard especially, since it has the most.

With graduation comes the confidence of having been to a proper business school, not to mention the “old boys” network that can boost them to the “top.” Then what?

There was a book published out of Harvard in 1990, somebody who had been at Harvard for over 35 years, a real insider kind of view of Harvard, and he had a list of Harvard best as of 1990 i.e. Harvard, the superstars, 19 CEOs of the U.S. companies, so we had over a decade to look at the performance of those people.

A majority, 10, seemed clearly to have failed, meaning that their company went bankrupt, they were forced out of the CEO chair, a major merger backfired, and so on. The performance of another 4 we found to be questionable. Some of these 14 CEOs built up or turned around businesses, prominently and dramatically, only to see them weaken or collapse just as dramatically. That was the record of Harvard's best as of 1990.

Since the 90s, Mintzberg has held lecturing positions at top business schools like London Business School and INSEAD. He's also an award-winning writer for Harvard Business Review. But he relies on data for his opinion as much as his own experience. He cites two separate studies on MBA performance:

“MBA CEOs, Short-term Management and Performance” (20176) used a sample of 5004 CEOs of major U.S. public corporations from 2003 to 2013.

“…we find that MBA CEOs are more apt than their non-MBA counterparts to engage in short-term strategic expedients such as positive earnings management and suppression of R&D, which in turn are followed by compromised firm market valuations.”

“A Fleeting Glory: Self-serving Behavior among Celebrated MBA CEOs”, followed every US CEO who had cover stories in Business Week, Fortune, and Forbes magazines from 1970 to 2008.

The research compared the subsequent performance of those companies that were headed by MBAs with the ones that were not.

The ones headed by MBAs declined more quickly. This “performance gap remained significant even 7 years after the cover story appeared.” The authors found that “the MBA degree is associated with expedients to achieve growth via acquisitions...[which showed] up in the form of reduced cash flows and inferior return on assets.”

So it's not just Harvard MBAs that perform poorly as CEOs, it's all MBAs.

That's why instead of case studies and functional skills, Mintzberg's IMPM program is designed around mindsets.

Henry Mintzberg teaching at IMPM. Source:

There are 5 mindsets covered, each in a 10-day program where students bring their current challenges. They get coached by their peers, and learn with their colleagues back home so that their learning is shared within their own organisation as it happens.

The Collaborative Mindset is explored in Japan. The Reflective Mindset in the Lake District in the UK. Rio de Janeiro's economic contrasts provide the backdrop for understanding people who create or resist change in the Action Mindset. Mintzberg leads the Analytical Mindset module in Montreal.

Sourav Mukherji oversees the Worldly Mindset module in Bangalore. One of his students explains:

One early important lesson I didn’t expect to learn was to walk like a cow.

Why like a cow? Because in the chaotic traffic of Bangalore, a simple task like crossing the street can be a big challenge to a pedestrian. Whereas a visitor from America might see two lanes of oncoming traffic, an Indian views two lanes as an opportunity to make five and every available inch of the motorway is used by cars, trucks, auto-rickshaws, motorbikes, donkey carts and cyclists. A green traffic light at an intersection is merely a recommendation to cross the street, not a right of way.

If you adapt to the local context and walk like a cow, however, you become part of the flow and can get to the other side. This is because a cow is slow-moving and predictable, which gives drivers time to adjust to their pace so they can move around, and not over, the beast.

Adaptation and accommodation are important for success in India. Even McDonald’s has not only tailored its menu to local sensibilities and tastes, but also offers home delivery because this is what Indians expect — something I am sure came as a surprise to the global franchise management in Oak Brook, Illinois.

© 2020 Source Labs Ltd.