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In the wake of the economic crisis and the resulting debate on the culpability of business schools, the move among academics to promote management as a profession has picked up steam.

Leading proponents argue that business schools should model themselves on professional schools, creating a code of ethics to help create a cadre of MBAs who are more accountable to society.

The starting point here – that management is a profession and should behave like one – is understandable. After all, managers’ status in society is similar to that of doctors or lawyers, as is the level of responsibility they carry.

But the analogy is false. Management is not a profession and neither can it become one. Worse, hanging the mantle “professional” on business education fosters misguided prescriptions for reform.

We turn to professionals because they have knowledge we do not possess. We trust the advice of doctors or lawyers because they have been guaranteed by professional associations. In turn, these associations are made possible because there is broad consensus on requisite professional education, certification as the exclusive route to professional practice, and the power of exclusion from practice through enforcement of ethical standards.

Management is different. While the professional is a specialist, the manager is a jack of all trades and master of none. The role of the manager is general, variable and indefinable – and as such resists the standards and certification that a true profession demands. A simple illustration is that it would be unthinkable for society to allow an unqualified person to attempt surgery, yet no one would seriously suggest that an MBA was required for entry into management. In short, there cannot be a professional association that controls entry to, and exit from, a profession of management.

The skill of integration is the distinguishing feature of a manager and is at the heart of why business education should differ from professional education. The key is to recognise that integration is not taught but learnt. It takes place in the minds of students rather than in the content of programme modules. The students link the various elements of the programme, including learning from each other and building on their own unique experiences.

It is therefore vital that business schools see themselves primarily as learning environments and not simply, and more narrowly, as places in which students are taught.

In a survey of 600 alumni who graduated from Cambridge university’s Judge Business School, in the UK, respondents ranked learning that took place outside the classroom, in project teams and learning groups and more generally in the business school and wider university, as more useful to them in their current careers than the technical and functional knowledge taught in core courses. It is this learning beyond the classroom that feeds the practice of management.

Business schools should also play down grading culture. An academic grading system cannot adequately predict managerial ability. It is possible to measure students in subjects such as finance and accounting, which are analogous to courses in professional schools, but it is much more problematic to assess the essential skills of management.

Moreover, the attempt to reduce learning to grading inevitably results in
non-collaborative behaviour and a dysfunctional learning environment. Students should be empowered, not ranked.

Business schools cannot uniquely certify managers, enabling them to practise. Nor can they regulate managers’ conduct. They provide learning environments that consolidate, share and build business experience and help equip managers to deal with diverse working environments.

Business schools are not professional schools but incubators for business leadership.

Richard Barker is a former MBA Director at Cambridge university’s Judge Business School in the UK and author of “No, Management Is Not a Profession” in the July-August issue of Harvard Business Review, from which this piece is adapted.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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