Practical Wisdom and Management Education

Prof. Andre Habisch
Prof. Andre Habisch

The EABIS-Yale Practical Wisdom Initiative seeks to construct a bridge between the worlds of management and the spiritual and philosophical traditions. This cross-disciplinary project brings together practioners and academic experts within each of the world’s six great faith traditions (Christian, Chinese, Jewish, Islamic, Indian, and Buddhist) to discuss how to bring the value of wisdom back into management and management education.

I recently had the chance to speak with Prof. Andre Habisch from Ingolstadt School of Management in Germany and Associate Research Director at the Academy of Business in Society (ABIS) about the project.

1.     What is Practical Wisdom?

The concept of “Practical Wisdom” is deeply rooted in the Western philosophical tradition. The corresponding Greek concept of “Phronesis” was at the very heart of Aristotle’s concept of professional development, which complemented the acquisition of instrumental capabilities with character formation (virtues). In ancient Greece, Meno asked Socrates, “can virtue be taught?” Around the same time, Confucius was teaching the key virtues for leadership. Today, 2500 years later, in the field of management development we ask a similar question: “can managers learn to be wise?” Can spiritual traditions – rooted in premodern agrarian society – play a meaningful role in our complex, interconnected modern world?

2.     Why create an initiative on Practical Wisdom?

There have been discussions within the Academy of Business in Society (ABIS) for many years regarding the limits of existing management education. But where should content for a reformed management education be taken from? Contemporary intellectual approaches remain rather constructivist and have no roots in the broader community of managers and entrepreneurs. So we decided to turn to the spiritual and religious traditions of mankind, the basic texts and documents in religious studies that are the result of a reflection process on the “good life” that has lasted for hundreds and thousands of years. We wanted to start digging into the traditions and see what lessons could be applied to modern day business.

3.     What is the EABIS-Yale Practical Wisdom Initiative?

The EABIS-Yale Practical Wisdom Initiative seeks to construct a bridge between the worlds of management and the spiritual and philosophical traditions. It aims to bring spirituality and religion back into management education. We felt that it is not enough to just reproduce spiritual texts or describe the practice of religious entrepreneurs. We have to work on these traditions. We wanted to learn more about how they face their day-to-day challenges with the support of their spiritual tradition.

For that purpose, we organised an international series of conferences on practical wisdom for management from the world’s spiritual and philosophical traditions, addressing the central question: How can we bring back the value of wisdom in management and management education? The conferences are designed to bring together philosophers, theologians, management scholars and business leaders to engage in reflection and dialogue and to find new grounding.

ABIS President Gilbert Lenssen proposed the ambitious project in collaboration with Ted Malloch from the Yale University Center for Faith and Culture and supported by a grant from the Templeton Foundation. I am trained as an economist and (Catholic) theologian. Therefore, I coordinated the project’s content as Associate Research Director of ABIS along with the Project Manager Cristian Loza Adaui.

4.     What have been the outputs of this initiative?

Ingolstadt School of Management generously supported my research on this topic and also sponsored the start-up conference at Eichstätt, Germany in 2009, which was planned and organised in close cooperation with Prof. Dr. Michael Naughton at St. Thomas University in Minneapolis. Following our start-up event, there have been six other conferences around the world, each one organised in close collaboration with a renowned business school. These were: CEIBS at Shanghai, for input from the Chinese Tradition (June 2010); Ben-Gurion University at Beer Sheva, for the Jewish tradition (June 2011); Al Akhawayn University in Morocco, for the Islam tradition (November 2011); IIM at Kozhicode, for the Indian tradition (June 2012); Tammasat University at Bangkok, for the Buddhist tradition (November 2012); Soka University at Tokyo, for the Japanese Tradition (May 2013); and Yale University Center for Faith and Culture for the Wrap-Up Conference (July 2013).

Every conference results in a special issue of the Journal of Management Development. So far, we have published four special issues, with more to come. We are currently preparing a book with learnings from this initiative that will be published with Springer Editors.

5. How can or should Practical Wisdom be incorporated into business and management education?

Traditional forms of learning are not enough – we need to induce more reflection from students about their own personal values, how they perceive their role in society, etc. Neuroscience confirms that these learning processes are not triggered merely by conceptual learning. Rather, experimental learning brings about increased knowledge not only about the practice of value-based small and medium entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs, but also gives students the opportunity to confront their own identity, values, and ambitions. For example a student should be able to reflect on the question: “Where is my personal red line, which I will never cross even if my employer wants me to?” It is important that they reflect on this before they are exposed to the enormous conformity pressures that exist in many organisation.

6. How has this initiative been received, and what’s next?

The Initiative has been very well received. In some countries, the Initiative has resulted in ongoing initiatives, e.g. the preparation of a Center for Practical Wisdom in Management at Morocco. We are also planning several more ABIS workshops, including one for the Humanist tradition in Germany, one for indigenous tradition in New Zealand, and hopefully some in Africa.

We have been able to acquire funding for a second step of the project from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). In the context of the German-Arab cultural dialogue, we will be able to integrate M.A. students into our program – a necessary next step to really arrive at the operational level of management education.

We are currently looking for business schools in the Arab world to participate in our common initiative with Al-Akhawayn Business School and two other German universities. Students are invited to dedicate their M.A. thesis to the topic of “Practical Wisdom for Sustainable Business” (e.g. value-based management in an SME, Islamic banking, Hallal markets, HR practices and Islamic values, etc.). We will be organising a series of meetings on the topic in the region over the upcoming year. If interested, please email Claudius Bachmann or learn more at the project website.


2 thoughts on “Practical Wisdom and Management Education

  1. The Practical Wisdom Initiative is highly interesting and I’m looking forward to getting more insights by the book in preparation. When research work is done, the next step is challenging: to bring academic and intellectual insights into daily business. It requires – as Prof. Habisch mentions – reflecting processes or experimental learning settings. Service Learning projects for students that combine academic learning and service in a community offer both, a systematic reflexion framework and an extraordinary learning setting within Non-Profit organisations. Our long-time experience with Service Learning approve, that it is a highly appropriate method to enhance value oriented attitudes and actions among young people.

    Gabriele Bartsch, Agentur mehrwert Stuttgart

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