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2 Applying critical thinking (Part 2)

It is important that MBA students have the ability to apply critical thinking skills in their work and academic contexts. As a Master’s-level student, you must demonstrate your capacity to think critically and reflectively about management, business and organisation, both as academic topics and as practical activities.

Practically speaking this means:

  • interpreting information and data by paying careful attention to what is in an article or other information source (what points and claims the author is making, what evidence they provide, etc. This highlights the importance of reading and note-taking skills)
  • analysing the material (literally, this means examining it part by part and then as a whole – leading you to questions such as where it fits in the wider debate around a topic, and what its point of view is. Even details of where and when it was published or broadcast can provide clues here, helping you to ‘look behind’ the content)
  • testing the material against what you know already (for example, seeing how well it accounts for a real situation, or compares with other perspectives on the same topic).

In academic terms, being critical means that you recognise that information produced by people, in whatever format, will be infused with their biases, either knowingly or unknowingly. From a critical perspective, there is no such thing as ‘bias-free’ knowledge. Similarly, knowledge is always subjective. Perceiving knowledge as biased or subjective does not mean that it becomes devalued; simply, by conceptualising knowledge in this way its status, as a human and therefore social construct, is recognised.

What critical thinking highlights and signals for closer scrutiny is knowledge or information that is presented as bias-free, simply through the use of language. From a critical perspective, our use of language is very important and revealing. For example, I can claim a decision I have made is bias-free by saying I have made an objective decision. By claiming it to have been an objective decision I am claiming that my personal feelings have been removed from my decision-making (quite how I managed this is unclear as I was never taught how to be objective at school, it is just something I am assumed to be able to do as a manager), and that other people with access to the same information would have made the same decision.

Critical thinkers would argue that all decisions that are taken by people are subjective, as we cannot remove our fallible nature (what it means to be human) from our decision-making processes. As critical thinkers, what we should be doing is reflecting on how our decisions are influenced by our feelings, motivations and aspirations. This point is not just a matter of academic hair-splitting – it goes to the heart of working life as a manager.

Box 1 Critical thinking in practice

First one needs to realise that knowledge is never value-free and objective. While we may rely on the science of aerodynamics to fly to a business meeting, most knowledge we will deal with as managers is not of this sort. Seemingly objective ‘facts’ are not what they appear to be, but are generally interpretations by people and are biased by self-interest, power, contexts and assumptions. The questions to ask here are: ‘Why has this problem been raised?’ ‘Why has this decision been made (or put off)?’ ‘What factors are promoting or suppressing particular information?’ ‘What is shaping the agendas of discussions or meetings?’

(Tyler, 2007)

One requirement of critical thinking, as applied to evaluating an article, for example, is that you ‘look behind the text’ and consider what may have influenced the author as they wrote their work. This can involve asking questions about their background, where the work was published, and what motivations may have influenced them. Later, we will include an example of a critical evaluation of a classic article which does precisely this. High status activities, such as strategy-making, can involve external consultants who charge considerable fees for their services, therefore knowing that an author is also a consultant may help us understand why they are putting forward a particular idea. Crucially, critical evaluation also involves asking the question: ‘what is not here that should be?’