How Can Business Schools Be Made More Relevant?
Are business schools overemphasizing research at the expense of practical experience in the classroom? Are they preparing graduates in useful ways for careers in management?
Business school relevance is an issue, judging from the predominance of responses to this month's column. The ways of increasing relevance were advanced, but the question of whether, in the current academic context, they can be implemented remains.
Sources of concern centered around business school faculty, curricula, and research. Chuck Drobny commented, "If the institution places research-focused faculty or graduate students in front of students, and the students lack any perspective gained through experience, the outcome will do little to enhance the managerial skill sets of the graduates." Lisa Marks Dolan, a business school dean, feels that much of the problem lies in the way teachers are trained. She writes, "We're being asked to produce graduates who can integrate, adapt, manage global diversity, work in teams, and bring out the best in others, yet these are not the skills that most doctoral candidates are asked to master as part of their training." Leonard Lane reinforces this view in saying that "Relevancy requires that the MBA-level instructor be a true practitioner-scholar who has . . . run or been a key part of a global business and has an advanced degree." As an alternative way of achieving this objective, Bobby Mackie suggests that faculty development "could include more two-way movement of staff, building communication links, and networking between academia and employing organizations."
As for curricula and research, Paula Thornton commented that "trying to get professors to pick up studies that are needed by the business community has been frustrating." Arthur Fullerton includes on his list of today's curricular inadequacies: "The ability to gather and mobilize resources...industry specific knowledge," and emphasis on "more variables [that] enter into people's choices than just value maximizing." Don Cameron thinks that "The problem with research is not the research itself, but what is researched. Let's have less esoteric research on topics that will not make a difference. . . ."
Fernando das Neves Gomes suggests that "If ways are found . . . in the classroom . . . [to address issues such as] how to win real clients, how to deal with competition—then the courses will become closer to the real world." According to Snehil Sinha, an alternative solution to bringing practical focus into the curriculum is "a year-long on-the-job exposure" for students after the first year of the MBA curriculum as well as "mandatory association with industry projects." "One solution [to concerns about the irrelevance of much research], according to Kent Byus, might be "to require academic research to pass through a practitioner review process prior to publication."
If we see the challenge and provide suggestions, Paula Thornton asks, ". . . what are the barriers [to useful change]"? Clearly, there are substantial costs to faculty and institutions alike in fostering any changes as basic as these. Costs include large investments of time and money as well as risk of personal and institutional reputation (at least in the "academy"). Which among traditional business schools would be willing to incur the costs? Or will alternative types of institutions, already mushrooming in enrollment, have to fill the need for greater relevance in management education? What do you think?
In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Warren Bennis and James O'Toole raised questions about whether business schools in general have lost their relevance by following "the scientific model" of graduate schools of arts and science as opposed to "the professional model" of medical and law schools. The professional model combines practice and theory and presumes that most or all teachers will have some practical experience.
Jeffrey Garten, dean of the Yale School of Management, said in a recent New York Times interview, "The real question is how to be relevant. . . . I was an investment banker for fifteen years. I was in four presidential administrations. But this job has been the most difficult of all." These questions are perhaps made more significant by the fact that the leadership of both Harvard Business School and the Yale School of Management will change soon.
Why are questions regarding the relevance of today's business schools being raised? Bennis and O'Toole trace origins of the argument back many years, but point especially to two studies in 1959 supported by the Ford and Carnegie Foundations. These studies suggested greater emphasis on the study, research, and application of the underpinnings of a management "discipline"—mathematics, economics, sociology, and psychology, among others.
These recommendations were received warmly by business schools seeking to improve their reputations and acceptance in the academic community. Many believe they led directly to the resulting triumph of science over practice in the selection and promotion of business school faculty and hence the topics they have chosen to examine. One important outcome for those studying to be managers is a greater emphasis that many business schools place on research as opposed to teaching. This has led, some feel, to a significant and increasing disconnect between the world of management practice, for which most business school students are being prepared, and the world of the "academy" in which faculty members who teach and research management issues are being prepared, hired, and promoted.
For those who feel this way, the question is what to do about it? Jeffrey Garten has put forth some suggestions as he departs his job. Among them are such things as "some real-world experience" as a requirement for faculty promotion, a "two-track faculty" with the second track comprised of "clinical faculty" who might not have the academic qualifications for tenure, and "mergers between American schools and schools abroad" as a way of encouraging a global outlook among teachers, researchers, and students.
Perhaps it is time to ask ourselves a number of questions. First, have business schools in general lost their relevance? Are they preparing graduates in useful ways for careers in management? If there is room for improvement, can it be achieved within the "academy," where business schools seem to be caught in a tug-of-war between the "scientific" and "professional" models? Or will it increasingly be achieved in the institutions created and run by large business enterprises to train not only their own employees but those of other organizations as well? What do you think?