Searching for scapegoats is understandable in times of crisis, and business schools have not escaped the blame list for the dismal state of the global economy. Commentators have argued that the research they conduct and theories they teach are irrelevant at best and misleading at worst. If management education is to regain legitimacy and relevance, we are told, it should focus on enhancing business performance and providing tools that can be immediately applied to pressing corporate problems.
This is hardly a grand new vision for management education. It is a narrow view of its function, if not a thinly veiled call for business schools to become subsidiaries, rather than partners, of corporations. And it ignores an important undercurrent in the demand for management education.
The recent waves of corporate layoffs have put one more nail in the coffin of the traditional social contract, but profound changes in the relation between individuals and corporations have been unfolding for 30 years. Rather than an exchange of reciprocal loyalty, the social contract of the last three decades has rested on an exchange of rewards for performance. Life-long employment, job security, planned career ladders and the like were anachronistic long before the economy nosedived.
The shift may have freed up individuals identified as "talent" to take advantage of global labor markets. One of its consequences, however, has been the general erosion of organizational identification. Many high fliers view corporations as stages to showcase their competence, not as institutions that define and shape who they are. It is thus no surprise that managers use MBA or executive education courses to do more than acquire knowledge and skills that enhance their business performance. Our research suggests that a growing proportion of managers employ business schools as "identity workspaces"—arenas in which to consolidate their professional identity or transition to a new one, to discover and craft who they can or want to be.
We coined the term "identity workspaces" to describe institutions that support individuals in making sense of their current experiences and integrating them in their ongoing development. Identity workspaces fulfill these functions by offering a repository of conceptual frameworks, fostering a sense of belonging to a community of peers, and hosting meaningful rites of passage. All three—conceptual frameworks, peer communities, and rites of passage—help individuals shape their sense of self. This, in turn, has significant influence in how they operate at work.
personal reflection and experimentation
Seen from this perspective, the problem is not that business schools ignored the social consequences of the theories they teach. It is that they paid little attention to the ways in which students used their courses to develop their professional and personal identities. Theories don't run corporations. Managers do.
The recent calls for reform in management education are timely and need to be taken seriously. Doing so requires resisting the pressure to narrow the focus to performance alone and doing more than looking at popular management theories with a critical eye or revising course syllabi and lecture content.
A meaningful and ambitious management education that aims to serve individual students, the business community, and society at large should embrace a broader and deeper mandate. As it continues to generate and disseminate applicable knowledge, management education also needs to explicitly support the development of students' identities as effective and responsible executives.
This means offering courses that address "how" as well as "why" questions. Teaching applicable theories in the classroom and providing experiential opportunities for personal reflection and experimentation. Helping students understand the relationship between what they do and who they are. Polishing rough edges and stirring things up. Teaching how to predict and control while encouraging inquiry and imagination.
Managers may not be taught who they are or who they should be. But they deserve to be offered reliable identity workspaces where long-term, fundamental questions can be raised, even when they don't contribute immediately to the bottom line. Performance may be the essence of successful business, but it can't be the sole business of successful education.