Do MBA Students have the Mind Set to be Knowledge Workers

A Chronicle of Higher Education newsletter, Wired Campus (January 17, 2012) used the following question as a section title, “Are Your Students Prepared to Be the “Knowledge Workers” of Tomorrow?” This started me thinking about MBA students as “Knowledge Workers,” which in turn caused me to ask the following questions:

  • Are MBA students prepared to be the “Knowledge Workers” of tomorrow?
  • Are MBA students preparing themselves to be the “Knowledge Workers” of tomorrow?
  • Do MBA students have the “Mind Set” to be the “Knowledge Workers” of tomorrow?
  • Do MBA students even have the “Mind Set” to be “Knowledge Workers?”

I first learned of “Knowledge Workers” while reading Peter Drucker’s book, The Effective Executive (HarperBusiness, 1966). I since discovered that “Knowledge Work” and “Knowledge Workers” are concepts that permeate many of Drucker’s writings. Quoting from Drucker’s Post-Capitalist Society (HarperBusiness, 1993: p 85):

“In knowledge work … The task is not given; it has to be determined. The question, “What are the expected results from this work?” is … the key question in making knowledge workers … productive. And it is a question that demands risky decisions. There is usually no right answer; there are choices instead. And results have to be clearly specified if productivity is to be achieved.”

In another of his books, Management (HarperCollins, 2008: p 199) he and his co-authors further elaborate on knowledge worker productivity,

“Work on knowledge-worker productivity, therefore, begins with asking the knowledge workers themselves, What is your task? What should it be? What should you be expected to contribute? and What hampers you in doing your task and should be eliminated?”

Task clarity appears to be the key to knowledge worker productivity. The case method, a widely used teaching methodology in MBA programs provides MBA students the opportunity to develop their “Knowledge Worker” skills, particularly when assigned cases lack clarity around the issues. Unfortunately, many MBA students are not taking advantage of the opportunity.

In terms of task clarity, my experience suggests there are three categories of MBA students,

  • Category 1: Task clarity has no effect on their performance. This MBA student group understands that seeking clarity is a part of the learning process and the decision making process. For them, each class assignment provides the opportunity for learning and working in situations where there is a great deal of ambiguity. This group exhibits the right mindset for knowledge work.
  • Category 2: A lack of task clarity is frustrating and likely affects their performance. Rather than trying to answer on their own or within their team the key question, “What are the expected results (learning outcomes) from this work (assignment)” they either delay doing the work, complain about the assignment, or ignore the context of the assignment (course subject matter). This group requires a mindset shift from one of frustration to one of seeking to understand.
  • Category 3: Those that immediately start working without an understanding of the task assigned. This is the “ready, fire, aim” group. In addition, this group explains their poor performance by saying, “I did not understand the assignment.” This group also requires a mindset shift from one of wanting immediately to do work to one of preparing to do work.

My experience is that many MBA students are looking for the “right answer.” More often than not, there are no “right answers.” Moreover, a lack of task clarity dominates today’s workplace. Managers and leaders often find themselves in situations where task clarity influences the outcome of the work they are doing and the work their coworkers are doing. For MBA students, the MBA program is a great place for developing skills for knowledge work, skills that will help them advance along their desired career path.

Do you think MBA students have the “mind set” to be knowledge workers? Is task clarity an issue for MBA students, either at work or in their MBA program? Please share your thoughts by adding a comment below.

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2 comments for “Do MBA Students have the Mind Set to be Knowledge Workers

  1. Tatiana Popescu
    February 7, 2012 at 9:39 am

    Hi Rodney,

    I think that task clarity is the first requirement in order to be performant. However, there are some situation in which task is not clear. In my opinion there are 3 possible causes :
    1. the one who assigns the task is not a good communicator
    2. the one who is assigned the task does not understand it well
    3. the task is not clear even for the one who want to assign the task but that person is intuitive or visionary.

    The first 2 situations, in my opinion, are leading to low performance with a high probability.

    The third possibility is very interesting and can enhance, in certain circumstance, the performance. I just read something about Steve Jobs recently. It seems that, at certain moment, the assignment for his engineers was that a computer should be friendly (appearences). It seems that, at the beginning nobody understood how a computer can be “friendly”. After many rounds of redesigning and after Jobs rejecting lot’s of proposals, it seems that they managed to achieve that task of making the computer friendly. My point is that, an open minded person can assign unclear tasks or be assigned unclear tasks, and this may lead to an outstanding result. I think also that the way of understanding task assignment and task execution for performance can be attributed to people’s personality mainly, and only at a low extend to the fact that the person is an MBA graduate. An MBA program though brings a lot of useful information with it, but also some paterns. Best regards, Tatiana Popescu, Assebuss EMBA expected graduation 2012

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