What keeps me awake at night?

I have just come back from Hong Kong, where I participated in the University of Cambridge’s first international alumni conference. There were more than 150 alumni attending, and we heard great talks on physics, biochemistry and sociology. There was also a panel discussion in which two College Masters, the Vice-Chancellor and I were asked: “In an age of globalising education, what keeps you awake at night?”

In answering this question, the Masters discussed the challenge of attracting talented applicants to Cambridge after the hike in tuition fees. The Vice-Chancellor spoke of his exchanges with the Government about ensuring that students of all backgrounds have access to the University, while maintaining academic standards.

Before going into what keeps me awake at night, I introduced our Business School to the alumni. It is interesting that some of them barely know that we exist, and others still wonder whether business is a legitimate field of academic study (though, of course, scientists were being asked this same question as late as the early 19th century).

Ironically, many of the alumni who studied “real academic subjects” at Cambridge now work in various types of business – so they know the importance of business as a driver of events in a society, and have gathered their own experiences in managing organisations.

And managing an organisation is complex. It involves engineering (of a social system, where the “gears” are conscious human beings), psychology (to understand thought processes and motivations), sociology (to understand collective action and culture) and economics (to understand the patterns of exchange and trade).

In itself, business experience is not enough. Complex systems need careful study in order to identify patterns of causality, so that business methods can be developed, and it can be recognised when they’re working and when they’re not. Just as medicine is not a mere application of chemistry and biology, business is not a mere application of the above mentioned disciplines. It is a field of its own.

On the panel in Hong Kong, I mentioned three challenges that are associated with globalisation. The first concerns worldwide competition for students. They compare schools across the globe, often influenced by imperfect rankings. So to attract the best, we need to better communicate our excellence and unique value proposition. That is why I touched on our strategy in the last two blogs.

The second challenge is a similar global competition for talented faculty. For example, I touched on the priority of entrepreneurship in the last blog post. We are seeking a top-class academic in this field. We need someone who can both engage entrepreneurs and businesses and share useful insights with them, and who can conduct research that warrants publication in the top journals. I have begun a worldwide search for candidates, but people who can do all this are rare.

The third challenge is related to how the School contributes to solving big global problems. For example, in Hong Kong an alumnus told me about asthma in children due to air pollution, but corrective measures are feeble. Worldwide, we are facing an increasingly certain climate change and the reaction is even feebler. Why is business not doing more to address this? The problem comes back to complexity, and the interactions of the multi-layered causality that I describe above. Human psychology is oriented to the short term, and has difficulty in prioritising action against catastrophes that are far in the future.

Cambridge Judge Business School can make a great contribution in addressing these complex problems. For example, the Cambridge Conservation Initiative (CCI), based at the School, is a unique collaboration between the University of Cambridge and leading biodiversity conservation organisations in and around Cambridge, UK. CCI seeks to transform the global understanding of the importance of sustaining natural capital. We recognise the need to pull this initiative into the mainstream of business teaching and research.

These are some of the challenges we face and we must address if we are to live up to our potential and develop the people who will produce solutions to the complex problems that business and society faces. But it is also one that Cambridge Judge Business School in particular, with its multi-disciplinary ethos in one of the world’s great research universities, is in a uniquely privileged position to address.

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