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Through a recent survey to more than 40 chief executives, published by Duke Corporate Education in 2013, chief executives have revealed the top skills they are looking for in business school graduates. They named key proficiencies such as problem-solving, the ability to connect different aspects of business, to think in a holistic way and the courage to deal with uncertainty and ambiguity.
Yet many business schools have failed to develop curricula that satisfy the needs of employers who require a workforce that can evolve alongside a continuously changing world. There are many reasons behind this academic-real-life disconnect. One factor is that schools continue to teach subjects in silos – as if there is no connection or overlap between them in the real world.
The outcome of this is that business education has become more akin to a factory line than the broad learning opportunity it should be. After all, business is a social phenomenon. It makes little sense to look at business in a vacuum, as if social science subjects such as politics and sociology do not matter, let alone teaching business as if each discipline were discrete items.
So why do schools continue to treat disciplines as separate entities that fail to impart the skills students really need? We believe there are three main reasons:
● Business schools want and need to be accredited. While students care little about accreditation, they care a lot about rankings. Conveniently, only accredited schools are allowed to participate in the rankings. Accreditation is not necessarily a bad thing: it institutionalises fundamental guidelines to promote quality education. But it goes too far when it leads to “standardisation”, which demands that all schools follow the same well-worn, mainstream curricular path. This would be fine if accreditors embraced a business school model that provides the skillsets employers need. But they do not. The unavoidable consequence of standardisation is that it kills possibilities for innovative ways of teaching and keeps core business subjects neatly and unrealistically compartmentalised.
● Teaching staff tend to have no real business experience. It is a good thing for experts to share their knowledge through teaching. However, their “expertise” is often built up through years of research in an ivory tower setting – not by teaching to seasoned executives or connecting with real businesses. The outcome is that this so-called expertise does not meld with what is actually going on in the world.
It is surprising how many faculty members have no work or management experience outside the confines of their academic institutions. Part of the reason for this is that they choose not to gain industry exposure in favour of pursuing an academic career. It is counter-intuitive, if not downright ridiculous, that seasoned managers in executive MBA programmes for example, are often taught by people who have zero experience of making the challenging decisions their own students grapple with regularly.
As a solution, many schools have hired experienced managers to teach. It is a great idea on paper, but all too often these engagements end up as one-offs.
Some business school professors do engage in consulting work in their respective fields to keep themselves afresh and remain current. But most do not, meaning that many instructors end up concentrating on a narrow set of subject fundamentals that bear little relevance to the reality of the business world. Many know this as academic research.
● Academic research often brings little to the classroom. But it is very important to business schools. It matters for institutions because published articles in academic journals count for accreditation and business school rankings. Research is also paramount in the eyes of teaching faculty because it is what promotions, tenures and salaries revolve around. To climb the career ladder, professors prioritise academic papers over consulting work. The problem with academic journals – as opposed to “practitioners” journals – is that they are usually irrelevant to what managers and executives actually do, otherwise, there would be no such distinction. There is no requirement for research to be influenced by real-life business. Many academics are therefore more concerned with theoretical concepts, which carry minimal practical applications. Meanwhile, the promotion system, based on the number of academic journal articles a professor produces, gives no incentive to teach current business trends.
Business schools, especially second-tier ones, have lost a staggering amount of credibility in the business community. With no innovation in sight to staunch this loss of validity, they stand to haemorrhage much more. If schools continue to teach business subjects in silos, they will further widen the gap between what students learn and what they really need to succeed. Students, schools, employers and society are worse off as a result. To reverse this trend, we need a change of culture, a little imagination and above all, a tiny bit of courage.
Terence Tse is associate professor of finance at the London campus of ESCP Europe Business School and head of Competitiveness Studies at i7 Institute of Innovation and Competitiveness.
Mark Esposito is associate professor of business and economics at Grenoble Ecole de Management, an instructor at Harvard Extension School and a senior associate at the University of Cambridge, CPSL.