Soapbox

April 30, 2012 12:01 am

Business schools have a role to play in UK growth

A closer relationship is needed between government, business and business education providers

In many advanced economies, notably the US, business schools and management scholars enjoy a close relationship with government and business. The steady flow of people between academia, business and government both cements and enhances the relationship between these three critical segments of society.

Such a close relationship has been absent in the UK, but the combination of poor economic growth and ministerial interest is beginning to change the status quo. One welcome manifestation of this is the government-backed creation of a business school taskforce with the remit of fostering a closer relationship between business schools and medium-sized businesses to help this sector grow.

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Since the second world war, attention to management education and business schools in the UK has roughly followed a cycle of perceived poor performance, investigation and then a promise of collaboration between key stakeholders which subsequently dies out.

The 2012 business school taskforce created by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills not only breaks this cycle but its very practical remit to examine how business schools can contribute to the growth agenda of UK plc is promising.

The challenge is to ensure that, unlike previous occasions, the tripartite relationship is enduring and develops into a highly productive, long-lasting relationship. For such a relationship to develop it is imperative that each party’s capabilities are recognised and that all parties benefit.

There are a number of potential projects that can assure sustainability and enhance the tripartite relationship. For example, a national short-term secondment scheme enabling a flow of faculty staff from business schools to private and public sector organisations, including the civil service, would help understanding and lower barriers. In many advanced economies, management scholars regularly serve as
non-executive directors, but less so in the UK. A scheme to increase the number of non-executive management scholars would benefit both business and students.

Time and time again, the government has emphasised the need to rebalance the UK economy. What has not been articulated clearly is how. One way would be for management scholars to work closely with government to establish a credible industrial policy. Another would be a series of business school taskforces examining the key issues dragging back the UK economy, which could build on the work of our current group looking at growth in medium-sized businesses.

Business schools should also play a more prominent role in trade missions given that many overseas students studying in the UK go on to occupy pivotal roles in industry and government in their home countries. Business schools can and should make a greater contribution to local enterprise partnerships that aim to build links between local civic and business leaders. Protecting and increasing the number of knowledge transfer partnerships is another useful avenue for enhancing a relationship between business education and industry. Such activity does occur already, but what is needed is an overall strategy to such work.

The past 70 years show that investment by UK plc in management development has been consistently and chronically low. Indeed, it lags behind investments made by companies operating in advanced economies such as Germany, France and the US. Yet the evidence of those UK companies that do invest in management development shows a clear link between that investment and improved performance.

To remain competitive, UK plc must close the development expenditure gap. Now more than ever, it is time for policy makers to stimulate the demand side through a closer relationship between government, business and business education. This is what our taskforce is working to achieve.

Prof Abby Ghobadian is head of the School of Leadership, Organisations and Behaviours at Henley Business School.

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