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Most business schools need a new business model. Numerous writers in this column have argued about the unsustainability of the current model, which primarily rewards academic research while not generating sufficient revenue to fund that very expensive activity. Only a few wealthy schools are exempt from this dilemma. From my experience that research-revenue circle can be closed only by engaging faculty with the oft-neglected, yet rich, constituency of practitioners.
Engaging faculty members successfully requires changing their mindset and also transforming the business model of the school so that it gives some priority to activities that involve practitioners: applied research, publication in managerial journals, media presence, advisory boards and the like.
Both academics and consultants teach that any such transformation is possible only with a programme that starts by getting consensus for change before taking any action. So why has it been so difficult to practise what we teach? Because the accepted wisdom is wrong, especially when applied in academia, where faculty excel at arguing why not to do something.
What appears to work is to reverse the sequence. Start with action and let the mindset follow. There’s even support in academic thinking for this approach. There is the marketing concept that “attitude follows action” and Richard Pascale, then at Stanford Business School, wrote in a 1997 Harvard Business Review article: “It is easier to act your way into a better way of thinking than to think your way into a better way of acting.”
There are three main reasons for leading with action – an approach which is quite contrary to the consensus culture of academia. In business, employees can be rallied around the common objective of financial performance. In academia there is no common objective; indeed the most important disagreements in business schools are about what the objectives should be.
Second, in business, unlike in academia, those executives promoting change usually have sticks and carrots to motivate alignment, including firing and promotion.
Third, academia poses many institutional barriers to change. In addition, most organisational rituals and routines reinforce a leaning towards academic concerns rather than engaging with business.
How should a dean start a programme of action change? Here are some key steps:
● Create a coalition of the willing. You do not have to bring everyone with you to start with.
● Replace those who are likely to generate the most opposition. If, however, such opponents are honest and open-minded, the action strategy can eventually persuade them.
● Focus your time and communication on the new behaviours you want the school to adopt. This may mean spending more time with external constituencies and less time internally. It also means selectively praising evidence of the new behaviours.
● Bring in outside resources such as the editors of managerial journals, to explain how to publish there.
● Make sure you have a trusted and supportive second-in-command who can deal with the internal issues for which you have less time.
● Recognise that your actions will be unpopular with many.
● Get the support of your superiors at the university level.
● Get your senior faculty to interact with senior practitioners at advisory board meetings, special seminars, or roundtables.
Only once the programme has started to demonstrate that such actions are possible and rewarding should you hold a strategy discussion with senior faculty. By then attitudes will have become more favourable and faculty will be more willing to endorse a formal change programme.
If you can pull this off, your school will become more relevant to business, generate more revenue from programmes and fundraising and rise in the rankings.
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