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MBA Perspectives: Scepticism and critical thinking

I would like to briefly introduce myself as a Newcastle MBA student from India with a Master’s in Structural Engineering and 6+ years of experience in core engineering design.

My Pre-MBA experience of critical thinking

The education system I grew up with in India predominantly tests the memory of an individual, rather than stimulating the individual to think. Although our education system is slowly moving towards a culture that encourages individuals to apply their learning, it will take more time to evolve into a place where critical thinking is embraced and encouraged within students.

Similarly, the work culture in India is largely hierarchical in nature with a greater power distance (Hofstede). In other words, the decisions are mostly autocratic in nature, thereby there is minimal scope to evaluate and challenge or critique ideas while working on them.

Despite these influences, I have several times been the odd one out by questioning and sometimes criticizing ideas, irrespective of the power dynamics. Although I had these glimpses of critical thinking, I had to refrain from developing these, due to the non-conducive national and organisational culture.

The MBA approach to critical thinking

The MBA orientation week included a session on critical thinking. I felt extremely liberated to know that the University wanted us to think, to be curious, to question and challenge ideas based on a rational evaluation.

My liberation moved towards a cloud nine feeling because the qualities I had to refrain from developing or exploring in the past were were now encouraged and respected.

On the MBA, we are taught to take a critical view of tried and tested theories, providing a critique not based on a random opinion that could have stemmed from unconscious bias, but instead basing it on sound thinking backed by evidence.

Healthy scepticism stimulates important questions

Although I like to critique and challenge illogical ideas or concepts, I was initially taken aback when asked to develop a critical argument against a proven and well-established theory or concept developed by academic scholars.

To develop such a critical argument, the fundamental step is to be sceptical.  This first step of being sceptical towards a well-established theory paves the way for a critical argument backed by evidence and also helps to refine new ways of thinking.

It is unfortunate that we live in a world that considers scepticism to have a negative connotation because scepticism is in fact the key factor that stimulates us to ask questions.

A well-known example of critical thinking

I would like to illustrate this with a well-renowned piece of critical thinking in the field of management.

The field of business management is largely evolved from the free market economies. It is therefore largely linked to neo-liberal views, because the fundamental idea is that organisations work for the profit maximization of shareholders (Agency theory). Unfortunately, due to global pressure, organisations needed an alternative way to gain profit.

This gave rise to the idea of Corporate Shared Value, proposed by Prof M. Porter. If this concept is evaluated at face value, it might be considered as a big idea (as illustrated by the Harvard Business Review).

However, if it is viewed through a sceptical lens (as Prof A. Crane and his colleagues did), it appears to be more a case of colourful packaging rather than being conceptually unique. Crane and co backed their critical thinking with factual evidence, and proposed that Prof Porter’s idea was just a repackaged version of existing practices.

The importance of challenging accepted norms

Despite critical thinking being taught and practiced across the western world with its elite education, a certain amount of academic reverence has always been observed, enabling certain flawed concepts to be sustained and grow.  Nevertheless, Crane and co’s scepticism paved the way for classic critical thinking in the field of management.

Developing these skills in real time

Regarding my real-time experience with my MBA cohort, we have had the opportunity to discuss and develop our ideas of scepticism as a key parameter for effective critical thinking.

To illustrate this, two key group discussions linked with this academic debate took place in a space of 3-4 months.  It was fascinating to see how the group evolved. In the first discussion, a range of baseless criticisms were made, stemming from strong opinions, and many times coupled with biases. In the second discussion, perspectives had moved towards well equipped critical arguments, which led to a sharing of interesting insights in the context of world views.

Top tips for thinking critically

In summary, to be a good critical thinker, it is important to nurture a healthy amount of scepticism. However, one needs to have a thorough understanding and knowledge of the topic, and the evidence to back up an argument, otherwise it only exposes a lack of knowledge.

It’s vital for our development that we all break our world views that scepticism is fundamentally negative in nature. Rather, scepticism is one of the best enablers of critical thinking.

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