In a tough environment globally, business schools seem to have adopted a supine and apologetic stance. There seems to be a general tendency to a “placate the aggressor” strategy of trying to be everyone’s best friend. However, showing a feisty attitude is actually where academics excel, so perhaps it is time we did just that?

Now would seem a good time to get back to basics, and correct some basic misunderstandings about business school teaching and research. When did we allow ourselves to be cast as training colleges or trade schools? It is not the role of faculty to ape the behaviour and values of managers. It is our role to analyse, criticise and challenge management practice. That’s how we add value and new and better ideas take root in practice.

The truth of the matter is that if there is a divide between business school teaching and management practice, it is because there is supposed to be one. If we are doing our job correctly, what we teach should make managers uncomfortable with the way they do things. What is wrong with a healthy degree of antagonism between the world of ideas and the world of action?

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The alternative appears to be academics mimicking the antics of managers, and managers attempting to set the academic agenda for teaching and research on whatever basis they feel best serves their short-term interests. Our explicit goal should be producing business graduates equipped and eager to ask penetrating and awkward questions about management practice, not running a production line turning out middle-management “yes-men”.

The role of business educators is not just to teach a fashionable portfolio of tools and techniques, but to show the limitations of those methods and how they can lead to disastrously bad decisions, whatever consultants and managers may think.

Business graduates are the future leaders of corporations, facing challenges of radical innovation, disruptive change, fundamental reinvention and mandates for integrity and social responsibility in all that they do. In fact, the divide between management teaching and contemporary management practice probably needs to be vastly bigger than it is now.

Then there is the issue of “irrelevant” research in business schools. It seems that any middle manager with a gripe, from any organisation under the sun, is regarded as a sage adviser for the future of research in business schools, and a critical arbiter of relevance and performance. Managerial opinions about research methodology and objectives are often uninformed. Certainly some research leads nowhere very interesting – that’s the risk you take. But good research is about generating ideas and insights into important issues, where the results are not predictable at the outset – that’s why there is a risk involved.

It follows that if research in business schools addresses the big ideas of the day, as it should, then it is likely that the results will be controversy and bruised managerial egos. Doubtless, we will be told how irrelevant academic research is to management practice. The fact that groundbreaking research upsets the status quo is kind of the point. Challenging received wisdom is one of the reasons academics exist, and it is where new ideas originate.

In fact, good research is likely to widen the divide between business schools and management practitioners if we fulfil our purpose in building a critical perspective on practice and values, not aping the latest consultants’ quick-fixes.

As business school academics we should stop grovelling and stand up for what we believe in. We are what we are, we do what we do and we will create value through innovative research and teaching if given the opportunity. When that happens, then perhaps business and management education will have reached a degree of maturity that justifies being taken seriously by all concerned. At least that beats being swayed by insouciant student whims, self-interested management whining and ridiculous regulatory rhetoric.

Nigel Piercy is associate dean and professor of marketing and strategy at Warwick Business School.

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