ASEAN’s western management infatuation

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In the rapidly urbanizing ASEAN region today upward career mobility requires a diploma, degree, and some form of post graduate qualifications to get promotions, particularly within the desirable publicly listed companies in the region. Upon closer scrutiny of what is taught at these “B” schools,  a colonial hangover and psychological dependence on ‘Western’ ideas appears to still linger on. This is somewhat ironic in a region where most South-east Asian governments espouse their own national values and “ways of doing things”.

South-East Asian countries may stand independent politically, gone a long way in achieving economic independence, but today still trapped within the syndrome of intellectual colonization. As business schools steadfastly stick to occidental business curriculum, former “western colonial masters” still dominate their ex-colonies, this time intellectually.

Business, entrepreneurship, and management courses are the fastest growing areas in South-East Asian education. Along with ICT, these are the most popular areas within both the private and public higher education sectors. The relatively low overhead and operational cost per cohort is a financial windfall for colleges and universities. Business education has become the cash-cow of colleges and universities within the region.

What makes these courses financially lucrative is the relatively low cost of teaching resources for basic courses compared to other disciplines. Very little infrastructure aside from classrooms and lecture theatres are required. A great number of business schools develop curriculum around an array of “international” edition US sourced textbooks on offer by the major educational publishers, strongly competing for business.

Consequently the intelligentsia of many business schools has looked inwardly, focusing their concerns upon quantity and numbers. They are bureaucratic diploma factories based upon single textbook unit courses, orientated around exams that at best measure memory and retention rather than creativity and the potential of the student to be innovative. To cap it all off, these schools are burdened down with quality assurance processes at administrative and teaching levels. With the high time commitment needed to adhere to these processes, mediocrity is ensured through the rigidity these systems create.

The leaders and teaching staff of the region’s business schools have a preference for the imported hype of management gurus who are popular in the media, even if these positivist instruments are not directly suited to the different contexts and varied business situations within the local environment. Perhaps it would not be exaggerated in saying that local academics educated in the “western” paradigm locally or abroad are mesmerized by international management gurus.

The great paradox of South-East Asian business and entrepreneurship education is that local higher education institutions espouse values within their respective cultural frameworks, but what is actually taught is distinctly “western”.

There has been little debate about the fit between “western” management thinking and the make-up and behavior of local corporations, entrepreneurs, and the general environment. As a consequence, the relevance of many theories has been accepted without question.

For example in the theory area, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is accepted into management curriculum where there may be many other more suitable theories and meta-theories that could be advanced. In the contextual area, the legal system, supply chain, where the emphasis on particular marketing tools should lie, interrelationships between people, which all could be described ‘as the way of doing things’, makes applying ‘western management theory’ challenging to say the least.

The preference for the ‘latest popular’ management knowledge often leads to misinterpretations, as very few management and entrepreneur instructors actually have much first hand business experience. Thus rigid interpretations of management still influence entrepreneurship courses. Many entrepreneurship courses advocate market research through focus groups, which are not suited to new to the world products in developing markets. Business plans are almost always at the central core of any curriculum where there is little evidence that planning leads to success in entrepreneurship.

Further business schools base much of the curriculum upon general misconceptions that both the media and imported textbooks that have evolved over the last 15 to 20 years have created. Entrepreneurship has been glorified by media stories, biographies of successful entrepreneurs, and events like ‘entrepreneurship week’, ‘business plan competitions’, and ‘entrepreneurship awards’. Course curriculum is shaped in the mold of the media made myths of hi-tech and high-growth entrepreneurs.

Business literature in South-East Asia is primarily US based which reflects the needs of a post industrial society rather than a developing economy. This is partly responsible for one of the biggest tragedies of entrepreneurship education in the region. Very little if any focus is given to various technologies that a potential entrepreneur will require in a new business. The acquisition of technology is one of the greatest difficulties SMEs in developing countries face and little is done within the education sphere to solve this problem. A graduating student may have acquired some general business skills but has little or no knowledge or access to the means to acquire the knowledge to develop a farm, a small engineering shop, a food manufacturing operation, or a cosmetic manufacturing operation. One can see around the ASEAN region that it is the non-business schools that show innovation with their outreach programs while business schools fall into the trap of cashing in on their BBA, MBA, and now DBA programs.

Evolving South-East Asian business and entrepreneurship curriculum has followed the post industrial models with a number of errors and mistakes. Due to the developing nature of most South-East Asian economies, there should be an emphasis on manufacturing which should include new product development and manufacturing line and system development. However ‘cut and paste’ curriculum from business schools in post industrial societies have largely dropped manufacturing from their curriculum due to the cohort interest in the services sector, where opportunities exist. This leads to a mismatch of what South-East Asian business schools offer and what business and entrepreneurship students need. As a result business and entrepreneurship graduates flood out into the market place without any technology skills, crowding the services sector which is not creating extra employment or real economic growth. Business and entrepreneurship graduate employability is a major issue facing South-East Asian economies today, with thousands of unemployed business graduates all across the region.

These two issues, technology and pedagogy require some deep thinking on the part of the intelligentsia of South-East Asian business schools. Content and delivery needs to be closely examined, experimented with, and utilized  with close adaptation to the needs of South-East Asian cohorts. This is the challenge that requires a large investment in time and staff resources to create the curriculum and delivery methods necessary to meet the needs of the students and nation.

To compound the problem further, governments and local corporations have a preference for foreign advisors and consultants, shunning their own. There is a negative disposition toward ‘locals’. Foreign advisors and consultants are most often sort in the misconception that their advice will be superior to local advisors and consultants, even though foreigners may have little real understanding of local context. This doesn’t occur because of any vacuum in knowledge and wisdom of local academics. In fact many South-East Asian academics are very successful in other universities around the world. Some have written very sound academic dissertations and hypothesis but fail to get them published through the publishers that can bring them to mass popularity. Rather they sell a few hundred copies and can be found gathering dust on library shelves.

Part of this preference for foreign expertise is based on the belief that something imported is better, an old colonial hangover. However the cost of this hangover is holding back indigenous intellectual development and preserving the state of neo-colonialism at a time when the US and Europe are far from possessing a monopoly of new ideas.

The irony is that Asian ideas have more influence on ‘Western’ management thought than in Asian management thinking. The only probable exception is Confucianism which could cautiously be associated with the structure, process, and strategies of family owned Chinese businesses in Southeast Asia. Although Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art of War’ and Buddhist Dharma originated in the Asian region, it has primarily been ‘Western’ management thinkers who have applied the respective philosophies to management, at least in these contemporary times. Although the Islamic ‘Tawhid’ is 1500 years old, it is probably only now that it is being considered seriously as a management philosophy.

Business school deans tend to play the role of a patriarch rather than a chairman of the board, which often degrades into crude authoritarianism. Consequently major positions within the hierarchy tend to go to those are liked and favored, rather than those who have worked meritoriously, successfully, and are qualified for the job.

Consequently many business schools in South-East Asia see personal power as the prize and Machiavellian behavior as the norm. Motivation among staff at the school will most probably be very low.

There is a drastic shortage of business and entrepreneurship lecturers within the region. Stringent criteria in the employment of lecturers eliminate the potential to employ mature, experienced practitioners or practademics. For example under the regulations of one aspiring university in Malaysia that portrays itself as the “Harvard of the East”, itwould not be possible to employ people like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and the late Steve Jobs, even as adjunct, due to issues of qualifications. Thus those that gain employment within the region’s colleges and universities have formal qualifications, usually without much, if any experience.

South-East Asian business and entrepreneurship academics consequently tend to lack the depth of knowledge about what they teach and rely on textbooks and popular management books as the basis of their teaching. This lack of depth of knowledge in many fields leads to a lack of confidence to develop curriculum outside the familiar textbooks they have available to them, thus inhibiting the ability to provide an education according to local needs. With this comes a reinforcement of an unconscious bias towards ‘western’ literature as local literature is still rare and far between and in many cases just a translation of existing foreign textbooks. Any original local material usually lacks peer acceptance due to the lack of ability of many to critically appraise it.

South-East Asian business schools have developed into a rut of pursuing quantity for the windfall incomes they can accumulate through popular products like the MBA. Foreign universities through setting up branches or strategic alliances are also cashing in on the rapid growth of business education in South-East Asia, further perpetuating the myth that foreign business theories are the first class product. They have adopted the classic post colonial market strategy of importing their product into a local market with minimum modification and exploiting the market to the maximum.

This rut manifests deep into the structure and processes of local colleges and universities. ISO quality accreditations and their logos are prominently displayed as symbols of quality, even though they have little or no relevance to the actual standard of the courses provided. ISO standards make no claims about product quality or relevance whatsoever and only mislead the public. The resources needed to implement these useless ISO standards are taken from potential academic development resources. This leaves a single textbook approach to courses, predominately delivered through formal lectures, rigid assessment and examination criteria and reliance on outdated curriculum development tools like Bloom’s taxonomy, when there have been many advances in pedagogy over the last few years; all in an unquestioning manner. The result of this is a sanitized teaching paradigm which doesn’t reflect the real business environment, leaving students ill-prepared for the outside world.

This ‘cut and paste’ culture without questioning and adaptation is holding back the development of business education in the region.

Of late, universities have realized the need for research to build esteem and gain a ranking. However this has been turned into a meaningless chase of KPI figures. Many new academic journals are cashing in on this unhealthy focus on SCOPUS indexing and now offer ‘pay for publishing’ arrangements, rather than the traditional ‘double blind peer review’ system. To date, most local research has tended to emulate other research, applying theory to local contexts, rather than developing indigenous hypotheses. This lack of originality is preventing the rise in international stature of local business academics and is the loss of a great opportunity to develop Asian based management knowledge.

Local South-East Asian academics have not asked whether “there is a distinctively Asian type of management based upon traditional philosophy?” Management theory has been something secular in Asia in contrast with the ‘west’ where it has been tainted with spiritualism.  Asian academics have preferred to keep both issues in separate boxes. May be it is just from lack of confidence to think outside their trained discipline and merge new ideas into their existing knowledge.

The education gap between South-East Asia, Europe, Australia, and the US is going to be felt for a long time. Part of the problem is the inept ability and resistance to change. Part of the problem is the lack of skilled, experienced and knowledgeable people. However the rigidity of educational institutions is something that can be solved, through some visionary thinking.

There is also another problem. It is apparent that creativity is an important aspect of education, which is deeply lacking in Asian curriculum throughout the whole school system within most of the ASEAN region. In business and entrepreneurship creativity is vital in the areas of opportunity recognition and construction, strategy development and execution, marketing, new product development, and solving general problems related to entrepreneurship. Creativity, rather than intelligence appears to be a more critical factor in achieving success.

It could be argued that ASEAN’s failure to develop their own contextually relevant theories and the corresponding positivist practices, where instead culturally unsuited practices are utilized, is a missed opportunity to develop new forms of new dynamic capabilities and competitive advantage within the region. This is the challenge to management academics and practitioners in ASEAN. It is the task of looking through the rich history, culture, society, stories, and philosophies of the region for the inspiration to develop and construct homegrown management ideas, rather than importing ideas developed in other parts of the world, which are suitable for those parts of the world.

Confucian, Buddhist, Strategy, and Islamic institutes exist all over the region, but there has been little focus on developing these philosophies as management paradigms. Today there is an intense vacuum of original management thinkers in the ASEAN region.