The most thought-provoking declaration at the conference I attended last week on the future of capitalism came not from a chief executive, business school dean or management sage but from a newly minted "Gen Y" graduate with an entrepreneurial bent.
Traditional education is flawed, according to Hongjun Wang from Singapore. "It isn't a complete system," he said. "We need to start taking personal responsibility [and ask ourselves]: 'What are the ways I can complement and supplement my education?'"
As recently as 20 years ago – and for decades up to that point – that question would have received the same answer: night school, graduate school, perhaps some on-the-job training, or, for the self-taught, out-of-work or impecunious, study at the local library. But mild-mannered revolutionaries such as Mr. Wang are launching their challenge at a time when the same content – and more – is available online, in myriad forms, at all times.
The dangers posed by this gap between young people's demands and the hidebound reality of much orthodox education are particularly acute for businesses – and business schools. At the other end of the seniority scale at last week's Global Peter Drucker Forum was Paul Polman, Unilever's chief executive officer. He prefigured Mr. Wang's comments when he described the rift between youth and the rest of society as Europe's most worrying problem and improvements in education as "the responsibility of business," as well as of schools and universities.
The message from young people at the conference was that if joblessness is the end-product of higher education, the institutions that provide it shouldn't be surprised if students choose to go their own way. For the less able or enterprising that could mean straight to the welfare lines; for the more entrepreneurial, to start-ups and social ventures, rather than to the traditional haven of big business, via business schools.
It's easy to exaggerate the threats to business education. It has the support of the corporate sector as a supplier and sponsor of students, as well as a recruiter of graduates. The fact employers still demand MBAs, explicitly or implicitly, as a condition of promotion to many well-paid senior roles embeds the qualification in the education system, just as credit ratings – another flawed, hard-to-reform benchmark – are embedded in the financial system.
But the truth is students can increasingly select MBA components separately and reconstitute them at will. They can build a toolkit for modern management – core finance, valuation, microeconomics – in modular form through organizations such as the Khan Academy, an non-profit online educational institution that aims to teach anything to anyone, anywhere. They can download lectures on strategy, branding, competition and finance as video clips from YouTube, in e-book form to their smartphones, or as complete courses from Coursera, an online provider of education, and others.
That leaves the soft MBA assets: a powerful network and a break from day-to-day office drudgery. Among graduates to whom I've talked, networking is the only part of an MBA they all endorse (and the only part that runs counter to employers' interest in retaining those same graduates), but sophisticated online business networks could gradually erode the on-campus advantage. As for offering a break from the workplace, any course of further education can provide vital refreshment for executives – often at far lower cost than a full MBA.
Other Drucker Forum speakers made a strong case for starting the education of future business leaders earlier. Noble laureate Dan Shechtman urges schools to teach "real physics" to four and five-year-olds to lay a foundation for them to become technology entrepreneurs. The Drucker Institute – pursuing the late management writer's advocacy of life-long learning – offers high-school students tools to help them pursue personal and collective goals. Roger Martin, dean of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, promotes "integrative thinking" not only to MBA students but to under-18s. The aim is to create leaders who know how to handle change rather than merely apply rigid, classroom-learned techniques and jargon.
As long as business is done, someone will make money from teaching business people. But Mr. Wang and his friends are already challenging the old ways of doing it. Established business educators who wish to serve Prof. Shechtman's kindergarten capitalists in future must heed the message from the youth of today: adapt, or die.