Charles Handy questions the wisdom of an education system which is fixated upon closed-ended problems when life itself is a sequence of open-ended ones.
Facing me across the table is a small shelf of books, or to be precise one book, all 2.5 million words of it. It is the International Encyclopedia of Business & Management, published last month by Thomson International Business Press. It is a formidable and impressive sight, put together by Malcolm Warner of the Judge Institute of Management Studies in Cambridge, with the help of some 500 authors from 40 different countries.
Although the editor hopes that the occasional MBA graduate will want to dip into it, to find out what has been happening to management since he or she graduated, the encyclopedia is not intended for the busy manager, who would indeed find it hard to put into a suit-case, let alone a briefcase.
This is a reference book by academics for academics, those concerned to build up a body of knowledge about business and management from which we can all learn. As far as anyone can judge - for no one will ever read the whole thing - it has been competently done although, as with all essays or articles which set out to give an overview of a topic, it mostly lacks excitement, provocation or glimpses of a different future.
What it does is make one wonder about the hidden message behind collections such as these, which are massively expensive. I am the proud possessor of several handsome encyclopedias, and a few handbooks of this and that, which are almost as thick. They are notable, mostly, for the accumulation of dust on their tops. They tend to tell you enough to make you feel ignorant, but not enough to give you any feeling of competence. I am comforted by their presence but not by their contents.
These sort of Mastermind books and collections seem to rest on the assumption of the primacy of information and factual knowledge as a source of effectiveness. If you know more, it is reckoned, you can do more. While there is a requisite body of essential knowledge and information in every field of activity, it does not follow that more is necessarily better, any more than additional central heating is better once you have reached a necessary level. Indeed, the reverse can be true; excessive central heating can drain you of energy. I harbour the pleasant thought that creative people have poor memories, leaving more intellectual space for invention, even at the price of occasional reinvention.
A senior manager complained the other day that his company's information system was now too efficient. His executives were drowning in voice-mail, Lotus Notes and general e-mail. 'They are responding all the time now,' he said, 'they have stopped thinking. We are losing the initiative in our business. Knowledge is important,' he went on, 'but there are all sorts of knowledge, knowing how is as important as knowing what, and then there is knowing who and where, which can be crucial ingredients in any project, not to mention knowing why, which can be the most important of all. We need all sorts, not just the first.'
He may not have been aware of it but he was echoing some important concerns about our education, be it at school, university or business school. Education, some would argue, is too fixated on closed-ended problems, problems that have only one right answer, the one that resides in the teacher's copy of the textbook or in the examiner's crib. 'What is the right postage for this letter?' is a closed-ended problem. 'Should I write or phone?' is an open-ended problem. Most of life is a sequence of open problems. Most of our education is to do with closed problems. We leave school, as I did, convinced that if I did not know the answer to any situation there was bound to be someone who did. 'Send for the expert' was my self-disabling response to any crisis that arose.
Business education is not necessarily any better. You cannot, in my view, learn to be a manager in a classroom because management is mostly to do with open-ended problems. You can, it is true, build up a basic understanding of business and organisations in that classroom, an understanding which will stand you in good stead as a beginning. The danger lies in thinking that that is all there is. Every manager should have done a business course before he or she is let loose on a real business, but they should not be encouraged to think that they are then competent to manage any part of it. That sort of learning comes from a hard apprenticeship, from knowing oneself as much as from knowing others or the business.
The same thinking applies to the whole of our schooling. We have always traditionally learnt about work at work. Why should it be any different now? School is great for closed problems, life is the only classroom for the open kind. Put the handbooks and encyclopedias onto CD-ROMs and let every child have the appropriate one in his or her satchel. No one then need be short of information or factual knowledge. Then let them spend part of their schooling in the real world, with apprentice-masters drawn from business and the community, many of them early retirees with lots of time and experience to offer. It is, after all, the way we have always educated applicants for the traditional professions. Why should it be different for anyone else? And this Encyclopedia of Business - shouldn't that too be on CD-ROM? Then it would at least fit in my briefcase.