Michael Aldous
Queen's University Belfast

Humanities and the MBA

rolf strom olsen

Recently I exchanged messages with Rolf Strom Olsen, Professor of Humanities at IE Business School, Madrid. Rolf is a historian who researches medieval state formation, and I was interested in his rather unusual path to teaching a required humanities module on the school’s MBA and Masters in Management programs. We discussed how he had come to teach management and how he used his historical training to shape his teaching to be relevant for an MBA class.    

Where did the idea for a humanities module on the MBA come from?

I have been teaching a required course at IE Business School called “Critical Management Thinking” that was originally conceived of as a kind of experimental pedagogical space. The school was looking to do something beyond the kind of traditional curricular emphasis found in MBA programs, so it was felt that a class with a humanist bent might be an interesting experience for our students.

My academic background is not in management; instead I study state formation, institutional development and ritual discourse in fifteenth century France. So the design of my class was necessarily rather novel: what could it look like when a historian enters the space of management education? Strange is probably the mot juste, but over the years of teaching, it has settled broadly into a kind of alternative view of strategic management.

How do you reconcile medieval state development to contemporary management issues?

Because I am interested in institutional development and the way in which legitimating discursive functions emerge as part of these processes, I try to bring this kind of historical analysis into the management studies. I use an idiosyncratic set of readings – an excerpt from Marc Levinson’s fine work, The Box, is one, a Case and Shiller article on housing bubbles is another – that on their own do not have much coherence. But the thread that connects them is they offer entry points into the consideration of how firms and markets operate. I specifically use them to explode normative frameworks found in strategic management.

So, for example, I wrote a case study about the Roman grain trade, which gets students to consider Coasian questions of the nature of the firm, but as a historical abstraction. This example allows them to investigate issues like the structure of institutional authority and the transaction-based view of the firm. So my students end up getting a dose of TCE, but we get there through the historical exercise of trying to understand how markets function in a world of limited information and with weakened authority mechanisms.  

But this is just the first step. At the same time, my material challenges the positivist aims of such theories. I use historical work by Polanyi and Greif, to discuss limitations of the “firms as markets” reading imposed by TCE. This gets to fundamental questions about the nature of the firm – a transaction reducing economic machine or social institution fulfilling a range of culturally motivated functions?

These are the kind of questions that I think are relevant to our students, making them rethink the purpose of the firm and thus how to compete. They invite reflexion driven, not by normative claim-making, but instead by historical reckoning. So I have found that the use of such historical material, combined with wide-ranging intellectual frameworks and a historian’s methodological toolkit (or is bias the better word?) is very helpful to reconceptualize some of the vital debates in management strategy and firm theory.

What do you think your students take away from the module?

My biggest concerns were relevance; students asking, why should I care about the Roman grain trade? and the problem of introducing this kind of material into a pedagogical environment that, by its very nature, places emphasis on functionalizing, operationalizing and instrumentalizing knowledge. Students demanding to know, what lessons can I apply from the Roman grain trade to solve my company’s current problems? Over the years of teaching my class, I have found that this has not been the hurdle I initially thought it would be.

What seems to be the main takeaways for my students is that, while they may not encounter specific examples that serve analogously to enlighten their current management environment (these are not Harvard case studies!), they learn to construct for themselves a more critical intellectual apparatus that thinks of management as an institutional challenge.  Or at least some of them do! Of course, students will eventually operationalize and instrumentalize the ideas they gain from my course, but it is an ex post discovery, not an ex ante premise.

Rolf’s efforts to develop his students’ capacity for critical engagement, pushing them to rethink the orthodoxies of what firms and markets do, appealed to me in light of the extensive contemporary debates around capitalism and markets. What struck me most, though, was his methodology. To go beyond simply using historical examples, such as the Roman grade trade, to illustrate past behaviors and different trajectories of capitalism and management, but rather to build an intellectual framework that encourages critical analysis of accepted management theory and practice. For which historical methodology is an extremely well suited tool. Rolf occasionally runs a version of the module on Coursera, and you can see more on his approach in this recent Ted talk.

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