Managing Knowledge and Ignorance: A Case for Executive Education

“The more you know, the more you do not know,” writes Shriniv Narayan in The Speaking Tree, a daily column in The Times of India. He argues that the observable universe is about 46 billion light-years in radius and there is an unobservable universe that the scientists are unable to fathom yet. Consider this; if that be the state of our knowledge and ignorance about the universe, what would be like our status in terms of our knowledge and ignorance in the world of business that is evolving at a faster pace. It is just not possible to say that your knowledge expedition is over, for newer developments keep reminding us; you have a long way to go. Specifically, in an Executive’s life, the rule is rather simple; one always remains a work in progress! Therefore, the imperatives of self-growth and self-management are rooted in the idea of new knowledge acquisition and the surest way to succeed here is to build commitment for your development goals. Formal and structured learning is a great way to build such a commitment. Clearly, there are many advantages that accrue for business executives when they sign up for such executive education programs:

  1. Growth Mindset: Sure enough, a growth mindset is about the company’s growth in the market place. But that is just half the story. If a company has to grow, its employees must deploy this mindset at the individual level as well and more specifically, in the way they see themselves as significant partners of the growth story. Executives signing up for executive education programs send a clear signal to their employers that they are committed to learn more and contribute more. Is not that what companies are looking for? It is a win-win for both; the employees and the employers.
  2. A Shift in Perspective: Executives enrolled in an education program develop a wider perspective on their business problems. At their work, they mostly rely on the knowledge bank developed within the company based on its own and or it’s competitors successes and failures. In an executive education program, the participants are encouraged to take a ringside view of the problems and build multiple perspectives on a given situation. In the movie Dead Poets Society, Keating (Played by Robin Williams) said, (

    “Just when you think you know something, you have to look at in another way. Even though it may seem silly or wrong, you must try.”

    Clearly, an immediate consequence of good learning from a program is about developing new perspectives embedded in multiple paradigms of business. To illustrate the point, let me cite an example from my own learnings. At an executive education program when I was confronted with a business growth challenge, I was focussing on just one stakeholder; the customer. During the discussion in the classroom, I could build another perspective that included competitors- how to include them in our strategy to build topline growth?

  3. Recast Knowledge in Emerging Realities: Often, the ignorance is not about lack of knowledge but more about the fit with the new realities of business. Lets us take a very simple example to illustrate this point. Most of the Sales Managers are aware of “how to motivate your salesforce” formula and they feel very strongly about their own way of managing a sales force. Most of it is grounded in the expectancy theory that is fundamentally built on reward expectancy. However, if you are having a good number of salespeople from the millennial generation, you would want to ask; are my older views about motivation hold true? Possibly not. Maybe this generation of employees are more independent and they would perform best with least supervision. The emerging paradigm of self-leadership would help the sales managers understand that intrinsic motivation is a more powerful source of the ‘drive’ and all they need to do is to craft a ‘purpose’ for their sales force. Think of several such issues in operations, marketing, and HR; your knowledge of these domains need a recast into the new tech-driven realities of the business.
  4. The Network Learning: A good executive program helps in widening your network; you include more actors in your sphere of influence. Participant from other companies, industry and faculty members for the program, they all potentially become part of your network. The peer learning here is cross-functional and multi-disciplinary and therefore, you become more welcoming of new ideas and possibilities.
  5. Self-Discovery: As you start your learning in a structured curriculum based environment, you also get a sense of what are your natural strengths and weaknesses. Such a high level of awareness results in self-discovery not only in terms of your career choices but also aids in shaping newer options; for example – it is not uncommon for executives to discover their entrepreneurial streak during an executive program.

Therefore, when a business executive is evaluating the options of whether to enroll or not to enroll in an education program, it is worthwhile to consider the truth; that we are all work in progress. The more we invest now, in terms of available resources, our quest for managing the balance of knowledge and ignorance would grow stronger. That very quest is what successful managers are made of, and organizations who hire such managers reap long term dividends.







Missed Opportunities : An Organizational Perspective

Much has been written about the success of new ideas that turned into huge business entities in both technology and non-technology segments of the industry. These are amazing stories of power of imagination, grit, perseverance and ability to withstand failures and getting up one more time to get closer to success. Consider global brands such as Apple or Indian e-commerce giants such as flipkart – these companies rode on the huge entrepreneurial drive and a belief that it could change the ways consumers behaved! In fact many of these companies believed that consumers could go wrong in the choices that they make and if they are given the right choice, consumers will question their own judgments about the product price, quality and experiences. However, if we look at traditional business conglomerates, specially in India, one wonders why these companies could be missing opportunities one after another. Several reasons can be proposed to dissect the phenomenon and some of these are explained below:( Self-limiting ideas and suggestions to overcome these)

1. Change is a  process : Organizations like to believe that change in technology has to undergo adaption process. Rightly so but for few exceptions wherein it does not necessary have to go through all the stages with a defined transition period. Internet and digital technology is one such example. Two years ago, most of the media companies considered this as a developed economy phenomenon. Today, even the industry forecasts recognize the explosive growth that digital media platforms are looking at. The change is much faster than expected and by the time this realization sets in, its too late. Consider tradition newspapers facing competition from news apps. Today we may like to laugh it off, but sooner than tomorrow we may see that in action!

Think about it : Only if Shoppers Stop knew that technology will change the way people buy, wouldn’t they be the largest e-tailers in India? What they believed in was the power of incremental innovation.

2. Incremental Innovation is Good Enough: For sure it is. It allows organizations to be on a steady growth without taking too much risk at the same time introducing products and services that keep meeting customer needs in a more effective way and results in cost efficiency. Nothing wrong in this philosophy but for one : it s a good idea for focusing on your current business/industry. But if you are looking at riding the next big wave of change, the organizational energy required to fire up imaginations is simply huge. Organizations then need to promote a culture of radical thinking to spot opportunities and expand the planning horizon to may be next two decades!

Today, while we continue to debate the future of print media,  futuristic media organizations are looking at media convergence as a way of incremental innovation. The best ones are busy identifying next big wave of opportunities enabled by technology such as Education! Watch out for Bennett University.

3. Thought Bondage : We are the best in the business! Yes you sure are but this is the era of indirect learning, the benchmarking framework has moved. The best practices of business are industry agnostic and beyond geographical boundaries. Thought leadership has just been redefined and a lack of it could lead to though bondage and cripple growth in an organization. In many organizations best practices benchmarking is a no go,even for  its own functions e.g HR, Finanace, Sales etc.  As Prof Rajesh Chandy suggests, ” Its all about spotting opportunities beyond one’s horizon”.

And one of the effective ways to break the shackle is to visit your people strategy.

4. People are HR and not strategic imperative : Its interesting to follow start-up hiring and the kind of emphasis they place on people. Tradition organizations are process driven and are largely obsessed with the idea of people as operation resource rather than that of a strategic resource. To complicate the people issues further, organizations promote ‘personality cult’ that limits the scope of institution building. As Devdutt Patnaik observes, ” Many great leaders are often Banyan trees, who do not let anyone else grow under them. They hire mediocre people and so create an ecosystem of mediocrity, which listens and obeys. They do everything in their power to kick out talent so that they are never threatened”.

Traditional organizations can afford this ( or can they?). Mediocrity strengthens the status quo,never questions it and thrives in that ecosystem till extinction.