B-School Blues

Business schools have problems. In their search for academic respectability they have modelled themselves on the social sciences, and not on for example law and medical schools. There are virtually no practitioners teaching in business schools.

Richard Schmalensee, Dean of MIT’s Sloan School of Management writes about the incentive structure in academia in Business Week,

Where’s The “B” In B-Schools?
To our critics, including many successful managers, business schools have become little more than exercises in ticket punching for would-be consultants, taught by faculty who are more interested in impressing their academic colleagues than in confronting real-world business problems. Although overstated, this caricature has a grain of truth. In response, many business schools, including my own Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management, are seeking to make our research and teaching more valuable to practicing managers. This is easier said than done.

Ironically, the recent criticism–that the MBA curriculum emphasizes analysis (what to do) at the expense of management (how to get it done)–is a sign that the last revolution in management education, which began in the late 1950s, was too successful. By bringing the methods and rigor of traditional academic disciplines such as economics and psychology into management research and education, that revolution substantially advanced the practice of management.

But now, management school faculty often focus on academic fields such as game theory or econometrics, not on management practice, and their work may have little to do with real business problems. And as business faculty have sought ever more academic status, describing what managers actually do has tended to crowd out prescriptive work on what they should do.

Critics charge that such faculty (some who may not even know or care much about business) can teach business students little or nothing about how to actually manage–in other words, to accomplish things with and through other people.

It’s in the interest of both business schools and managers to bridge this divide. Management schools need to engage thoughtful practitioners in research-based, problem-driven endeavors to improve both the teaching and practice of management.

Unfortunately, under the current academic reward system, what matters most is having an impact among peers, mainly by getting specialized research published in influential journals. The system isn’t designed to evaluate or reward someone who invests significant time in the field learning about industry X and working on its problems, even though that investment may produce a superb observer of what’s happening in the field who then brings that direct knowledge to bear on both their teaching and research.

Even after faculty get lifetime tenure, if they veer from the traditional academic path, they will likely lose stature within the academy. Few have a strong enough ego not to care. At the core of management school criticism, then, is a fundamental mismatch: the academic system’s current methods for hiring and rewarding professors don’t necessarily attract or encourage the kind of practitioner-oriented faculty we need to make business-school research and MBA education much more attuned to meeting today’s and tomorrow’s management challenges.

Solving this core problem will require a major effort not just at MIT Sloan, but at all business schools. Many are willing and anxious to solve this problem, but, like me, are not quite certain how to do so.

Part of the answer is for business students to learn more about business directly from practitioners. Former General Electric Chief Executive Jack Welch’s class at MIT Sloan, based on his management best-seller, Winning, is one example of this. In addition, we are reevaluating our MBA curriculum to focus it–and the students/future managers we are educating–more sharply on emerging challenges in the areas of globalization, sustainability, entrepreneurship, and innovation. We are also experimenting with promising new ways to develop students’ abilities to manage and lead.

In the longer run, however, relationships between business schools and business professionals must extend beyond individual classes or programs. And business schools’ research agendas must become primarily driven by real-life management problems. But in order for this change to happen, problem-driven research must become recognized and honored as a great way to advance, not jeopardize, an academic career.


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