Popular fads replace relevant teaching

Academic research seldom makes it into MBA classrooms

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There is a great divide in business schools, one that few outsiders are aware of. It is the divide between research and teaching. There is little relation between them. What is being taught in management books and classrooms is usually not based on rigorous research and vice-versa; the research published in prestigious academic journals seldom finds its way into the MBA classroom.

The consequences of this divide are grave. First of all for research: because none of this research is really intended to be used in the classroom, or to be communicated to managers in some other form, it is not suited to serve that purpose. The goal is publication in a prestigious academic journal, but that does not make it useful or even offer a guarantee that the research findings provide much insight into the workings of business reality.

It is not a new problem. In 1994, Don Hambrick, then the president of the Academy of Management, said: “We read each others’ papers in our journals and write our own papers so that we may, in turn, have an audience . . . an incestuous, closed loop”. Management research is not required to be relevant. Consequently much of it is not.

But business education clearly also suffers. What is being taught in management courses is usually not based on solid scientific evidence. Instead, it concerns the generalisation of individual business cases or the lessons from popular management books. Such books often are based on the appealing formula that they look at several successful companies, see what they have in common and conclude that other companies should strive to do the same thing.

But how do you know that the advice provided is reasonable, or if it comes from tomorrow’s Enrons, RBSs, Lehmans and WorldComs? How do you know that today’s advice and cases will not later be heralded as the epitome of mismanagement?

How could rigorous and relevant management research help? In the 1990s, ISO9000 (a quality management systems standard) spread through many industries. But research by professors Mary Benner and Mike Tushman showed that its adoption could, in time, lead to a fall in innovation (because ISO9000 does not allow for deviations from a set standard, which innovation requires), making the adopter worse off. This research was overlooked by practitioners, many business schools continued to applaud the benefits of ISO9000 in their courses, while firms continued – and still do – to implement the practice, ignorant of its potential pitfalls. Yet this research offers a clear example of the possible benefits of scientific research methods: rigorous research that reveals unintended consequences to expose the true nature of a business practice.

However, such research with important practical implications unfortunately is the exception rather than the rule. Moreover, even relevant research is largely ignored in business education – as happened to the findings by Benner and Tushman.

Of course one should not make the mistake that business cases and business books based on personal observation and opinion are without value. They potentially offer a great source of practical experience. Similarly, it would be naive to assume that scientific research can provide custom-made answers. Rigorous management research could and should provide the basis for skilled managers to make better decisions. However, they cannot do that without the in-depth knowledge of their specific organisation and circumstances.

Yet, at present, business schools largely fail in providing rigorous, evidence-based teaching. Instead, the separation between research and teaching causes their courses to rely largely on dangerously simplified generalisations at a time when corporate pitfalls – that recently laid our economies low – epitomise a need for more sound management in favour of popular fads.

Freek Vermeulen is associate professor of strategic and international management at London Business School and author of Business Exposed: the naked truth about what really goes on in the world of business.(FT Prentice Hall)

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