Experience needs to be blended with theory

Students must appreciate the influences of their working environments on the views they develop

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The question of what the exact role and nature of business schools is has received considerable attention since the start of the financial crisis.

In a way business schools are part of the business community. They study and lecture about business, and their fees are up there when looking at it from a business point of view. And, importantly, many students perceive the precious education received at their business school as an investment that needs to return profits in one way or another. If this is true, then in what way would the norms and attitudes of business schools be any different from those of the corporate world? Can we in all honesty expect anything different from business schools other than conforming to the corporate wisdom that is agreed upon and supported by the personal experiences of our executives and students?

From a scholarly point of view such a reality would be extremely disappointing. Indeed, simply endorsing commonly established business procedures and experiences does not create much added value. Rather, one should expect business professors to challenge common business wisdom and go beyond experience. Moreover, business schools take pride in educating the leaders of tomorrow. In light of the aftermath of the financial crisis this would suggest that we aspire to bring leaders to the fore who are aware that once recovery sets in, we need to move in different ways.

To achieve this, we need leaders with independent critical thought. And it is exactly the latter point that should touch upon the heart of a business school education.

Are business schools successful in getting that message across to students and business people? Only partly, I’m afraid. Too often today business students – and by extension the business community – maintain the belief that experience should be the primary driver of learning. Experience does help to identify problems and future challenges but experience alone teaches nothing. Link experience to a theory, and you generate knowledge that you can use to your benefit.

It is at this intersection that business schools need to place themselves. Independent research is needed at business schools to provide students with differing perspectives; ideas that are proffered by experienced, independent businesspeople who realise the importance of placing such ideas where they matter most. Such ideas would have to be tested on their external validity, but the point is that students with experience can gain more if they also possess an independent set of theoretical tools.

The true responsibility of business schools therefore lies in making students more aware of the influences of their working environments on the decisions they take and the views they will develop.

Understanding the necessity of asking why will help to put things in perspective. Asking why helps to analyse business practices in ways that identify the processes leading to the outcomes. Understanding the processes that lead to positive outcomes strengthens the competitive edge and sustainable enterprise of your company. Understanding the processes that instigate failures helps you and your company to modify and improve strategy and decision making.

This educated way of looking and interpreting allows experience to meet theory and helps the development of interventions and procedures focused on the processes that matter. Relying solely on the norms and experiences out there can make you blind to the steps to take to develop your company in sustainable ways.

Business schools need to realise this challenge and market themselves in ways that allow for this type of leadership to emerge, while at the same time achieving a sense of identity that combines business tradition with independent thought. After all, for future business people, having their own personal toolkit that includes critical and independent thought may turn out to be the biggest asset that they and their company will ever have.

David De Cremer is professor of behavioural business ethics at Rotterdam School of Management and visiting professor at London Business School.

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