Soapbox

October 31, 2011 1:13 am

The question of relevance needs to be addressed

Business schools need to regain the purpose for which they were founded and engage actively with the real business world

What are business schools for? What do they do? How can they best serve the needs of business and society? These are urgent questions facing business schools. And unless they can come up with some compelling answers – soon – they will find their legitimacy called into question.

Business schools think they already know the answers: their purpose is the creation of knowledge. That means research, formal empirical research projects with results published in peer-reviewed academic journals so that all can see the results and verify them. Success in the business school world means having as many articles as possible published in highly ranked journals.

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It is right that business schools should do research. But over the course of the past decade, research has become an end in itself. Ask most business school deans which rankings matter most and the answer will be research rankings. To paraphrase baseball coach Yogi Berra, research is not a matter of life and death; it is more important than that.

It is worth remembering that business schools were not founded as research centres. The first business schools were established to help meet the acute shortage of trained managers. They were, unashamedly, devoted to training and education. They provided practical information and tools to help managers manage. They served society by helping businesses to be run more effectively and
to create jobs and wealth.

A century on, the demand for skilled and knowledgeable managers has grown further. So too has the need for job and wealth creation. There is a desperate need for the knowledge latent within business schools to be disseminated more widely to working managers. Instead, business schools are turning their backs.

What are we to make of business schools where faculty are prohibited from writing books or articles for popular consumption? What leads deans to forbid their academics from writing works that might appeal directly to practising managers and insist that they can only publish in peer-reviewed journals – which, as one colleague says, “only three people and a dog ever read”? And in another worrying trend, some business schools are prohibiting faculty from engaging in consultancy projects with businesses. Practical problem-solving is no longer valued. Only research matters.

One by one, the channels by which business academics once communicated knowledge to professional audiences are closing. Of course there is still teaching and, at least on MBA and executive education programmes, faculty have a chance of communicating with practising managers. But for many academics teaching is now an onerous chore, a further distraction from the real business of research. Senior faculty, those with the most wisdom and knowledge to impart to students, often do little or no teaching.

In his collection of essays “On Living in a Revolution”, Julian Huxley wrote that any educational system must be closely linked with the aspirations of the society it serves. Failure in this respect means that “the lack of social relation will recoil back on the institution itself and will invest it with a sense of unreality”. He could easily have been writing about modern business schools. By divorcing themselves from the practical problems and challenges facing business and concentrating on pure knowledge, business schools think they are playing a vital role. In fact, they are living in dreamland.

Today, as the world wallows in the slough of economic despond, the question is quietly being asked, whether business schools are part of the solution or part of the problem. Unless business schools regain the purpose for which they were founded and start to engage actively with the real business world, the question will be asked more loudly and more often. The credibility of business schools as institutions, indeed their very future, is at stake. Let us hope that “you have been weighed in the balance and found wanting” does not become the epitaph of business schools.

Morgen Witzel is a fellow of the Centre for Leadership Studies, University of Exeter Business School.

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