Improving Mutual Understanding Between Business Schools and Business
post # 195 — September 20, 2006 — a Careers post
On Friday, the 29th of September, (8 or 9 days from now) I will be giving a speech to 150 faculty members from European business schools on the topic given above.
It just occurred to me that if I blogged about it here, some of you may have some ideas and messages you want me to pass along.
Traditionally, there have been four ways business schools (and other professional schools) interact with business:
- Conducting research which helps us understand business better (i.e. an academic, intellectual purpose of contributing to knowledge.)
- Producing prepared students, ready for productive work lives
- Conducting research that is helpful to practicing business people
- Conducting executive education programs for mid-career and senior people
Iâ€™m not sure what absolute â€œgradeâ€ I would give to business schools around the world on each of these things, but I donâ€™t think itâ€™s high on any of them.
Iâ€™m least equipped to evaluate the academic scholarly contributions of business school faculty — I was never a good academic even when I was a business school professor. And anyway, that first purpose is not what Iâ€™ve been asked to talk about (even though many professors would consider it their primary purpose and obligation.)
What about producing prepared students ready for business or professional life? As we have discussed here, I donâ€™t think many schools do a wonderful job with helping students develop the social, psychological, interpersonal, political and emotional skills to succeed in life. Business schools donâ€™t; law schools donâ€™t; PR degree-programs donâ€™t; education in general doesnâ€™t.
I did note in the Wall Street Journal special Report today (Wednesday September 20) that some business schools like Michigan and Dartmouth Iin the US) and ESADE (in Europe) are rated very highly in developing (or screening for) students who are willing team players without the pomposity that graduates of some other schools have. Anyone want to comment on what those schools are doing well?
I would not give business school faculty at large a particularly high score on producing useful business research. First, it should be noted that few of the key managerial ideas of past decades (TQM, Six-sigma, business process reengineering, etc) actually originated with faculty research. Get the impression that most â€œBIGâ€ ideas and big thinking come from consultants and business itself. Or am I being unfair?
I have written before that I am nervous about businesses using business schools for executive education. I think business schools can do a wonderful job at teaching analytics and things of the mind, but are less well equipped to teach managing (ie dealing with real live human beings.)
So what would I do to improve all this, even a little?
Here are a few initial opinions:
- Build on strengths not weaknesses — most graduates of business schools (at least in the US and UK) go into consulting, investment banking and other advisory businesses (PR, accounting, etc.) Very few graduates really go to work for ‘regular’ companies. Maybe business schools should admit to themselves that they are training consultants, not managers.
- Business schools like everyone else should spend more time listening to their custromers — if they can ever figure out who the faculty really want to serve. Other academics? Recruiters? Students Its very unclear.
- Invite business people in to give lectures and seminars not to the students but to the faculty
- Require that all faculty do a consulting job for a local business (NOT executive education) and have the client come back and report to all the students and the rest of the faculty how helpful the professor was
- Make all business school academics run their own business, and report annually to the rest of the faculty how well it is going
- Find ways to screen students (and faculty?) for character, not intelligence
- Focus more on designing educational experiences (not content) that help students develop skills through guided practice (how to function in teams, etc.)
- Stop trying to do a little bit of everything: require that each business school have a strategy, a target niche and a differentiation. Working to build this in competition with other schools will help faculty understand organizations much better.
- Set publicly announced targets for the school’s startegyand appoint an external monitoring board (with high visibility and embarrassment.) Introduce accountability into faculty memebers’ lives.
So, those are some of the ideas I plan to throw out.
What would be some of your ideas of things business schools could do to improve their mutual understanding with business?
Warren Miller said:
You have a tall order, David, at least in my less-than-humble opinion. There is a significant disconnect between business academics and “practitioners” (a term I deplore). I have already sent you the piece that Ben Oviatt and I wrote for the Academy of Management Executive (1989) entitled “Irrelevance, Intransigence, and Business Professors.” That article leads with a quote from an unidentified business professor (who today is prominent at Stanford and his own blog!), and that quote tells the story, I think: “I’ve been in the real world. It stinks.”
It’s very tough, I think, to build a bridge between two groups that hold one another in something bordering on contempt. We sometime hear clients snicker, “Well, that’s the theeee-ree, but out here in the real world, etc.” They say that as if theory and reality are not related. In fact, what they’re really saying, of course, is that they can’t tell the difference between good theory and a half-baked idea.
On the other side, most business academics I’ve met don’t like business executives. My own view is that part of that is rooted in significant political differences—many business owners in the “middle market” lean to the right, while most academics, even those in b-schools, lean to the left. I am not sure that many b-profs even believe in the notion of profit. We all know that old adage, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” And I say that as a recovering academic and sometime adjunct myself.
Let me offer some comments for each of your specific points, and I’ll close with several recommendations.
I infer that your comments are directed at graduate schools of business because of your reference to consulting and investment banking. Most B-schools these days require several years of real-world work experience before they’ll accept a candidate into an MBA program. I think they’re on the right track there, but I would take it a step further. I would make the minimum at least six (6) years of experience (the schools I know about say 2 or 3) AND I would stipulate that the individual could NOT come out of a firm that provided advisory services OR a government agency.
My second recommendation is to abolish all undergraduate schools of business. Period. I say that, but I should also disclose that I “are” a product of one of those programs. I believe that the vast majority of them are trade schools – they teach young people how to do something (accounting, for instance), but they don’t teach them how to think. Learning how think comes in engineering and liberal arts, not in undergraduate business programs. I always thought it was the height of tomfoolery when I taught strategic management to graduating seniors; after all, what on earth could they possibly contribute to a case discussion?
My third recommendation is to require all MBA students to have worked on and been a part of a research paper published in a double-blind refereed journal. That will give them an appreciation for just how tough good research is.
My last recommendation is to give a comprehensive exam before allowing anyone to get an MBA. The exam should be in essay format (to hell with the lawyers!) and failing MUST be an option. The test questions would require students to apply theoretical constructs to real-world case situations. They would be graded on their grasp of the theory, their ability to write, and the suitability of their application to the organizations described in each case.
In closing, let me say that most top-tier strategy professors do have more-or-less active consulting practices, in addition to active publishing efforts. In fact, the best-grounded (and most well-rounded) academics I know are those who produce knowledge (research) AND test what they do by getting out in the marketplace. The most useful research I read comes out of referreed journals with a significant non-academic audience (e.g., Strategic Management Journal and Journal of Applied Corporate Finance).
Some even leave academe completely (I think of Steve Kerr, Trish Clifford, and Hugh Courtney, for instance, though Hugh has returned of late), and those are the ones for whom I have the greatest respect. They have forsaken tenure for the chance at a much higher rate of return.
As I said at the outset, I think you have a tall order. If you challenge the status quo, as I hope you will, I am confident that you’ll develop a keen empathy for General Custer. But you’ll also be doing serious work and work which most of us who read this blog would heartily endorse.
Hope this helps, David.
posted on September 21, 2006