Business Education Under the Microscope

Amid growing charges of irrelevancy, business schools launch a study of their impact on business

The business-school world has been besieged by criticism in the past few months, with prominent professors and writers taking bold swipes at management education. Authors such as management expert Gary Hamel and Harvard Business School Professor Rakesh Khurana have published books this fall expressing skepticism about the direction in which business schools are headed and the purported value of an MBA degree. The December/January issue of the Academy of Management Journal includes a special section in which 10 scholars question the value of business-school research.

B-school deans may soon be able to counter that criticism, following the launch of an ambitious study that seeks to examine the overall impact of business schools on society. A new Impact of Business Schools task force convened by the the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB)—the main organization of business schools—will mull over this question next year, conducting research that will look at management education through a variety of lenses, from examining the link between business schools and economic growth in the U.S. and other countries, to how management ideas stemming from business-school research have affected business practices. Most of the research will be new, though it will build upon the work of past AACSB studies, organizers said.

The committee is being chaired by Robert Sullivan of the University of California at San Diego's Rady School of Management, and includes a number of prominent business-school deans including Robert Dolan of the University of Michigan's Stephen M. Ross School of Business, Linda Livingstone of Pepperdine University's Graziado School of Business & Management, and AACSB Chair Judy Olian, who is also the dean of UCLA's Anderson School of Management. Representatives from Google (GOOG) and the Educational Testing Service will also participate. The committee, which was formed this summer, expects to have the report ready by January, 2009. reporter Alison Damast recently spoke with Olian about the committee and the potential impact of its findings on the business-school community.

There has been a rising tide of criticism against business schools recently, some of it from within the B-school world. For example, Professor Rakesh Khurana implied in his book From Higher Aims to Hired Hands (, 11/5/07) that management education needs to reinvent itself. Did this have any effect on the AACSB's decision to create the Impact of Business Schools committee?

I think that is probably somewhere in the background, but I certainly don't view that as in any way the primary driver or particularly relevant to what we are thinking about here. What we are looking at is a variety of ways of commenting on what the impact of business schools is. The fact is, it hasn't been documented and as a field we haven't really asked those questions and we need to. I don't think a study like this has ever been done before.

How has the business-school community been responding to this criticism?

When there is criticism of business schools, the takeaway I have is we need to be constantly in touch with the marketplace. That's our mission. We think the management leadership research that comes out must be relevant to the issues in the marketplace, whether that's today, tomorrow, or 10 years from now. It can't be insulated or isolated.

The market also speaks, because MBA employment is as strong as it has been even in these economic times. The fastest-growing segment of the education market in India and China is business schools. So if management education was that irrelevant, I don't think people would be voting with their feet as they are.

Has the mission of business schools changed since they were founded?

When they were founded years ago, they were trade schools and they were teaching people very narrow skills like managing or creating a balance sheet or being able to run an assembly line. They were also teaching people how to type and manage projects. Today, it's much more about strategic thinking and judgment. It is research-driven as opposed to anecdotally driven, and these practices have permeated the way business is conducted. I think business schools have changed in the way they think about management leadership and the role it plays in learning environments. The notion of relevancy to the marketplace is central to every mission statement that business schools have.

What stakeholders in the business school world and beyond will be interested in the results of this study?

Our primary audience is the business school community, which needs to be constantly evaluating and self-introspecting about what it is doing. The next audience is our constituencies in our community. We need to say, 'O.K., are we having enough of an impact?' If it turns out we're not, this will give us best practice clues on how to do it. A third audience will be policymakers, who will look at the role that management education should be playing in continuing growth, innovation, and leadership of economies.

Do you think the results of the study could cause business schools to reinvent themselves?

I don't know about reinvent, but it might be a bit of an awakening call. I may be a little self-confident here, but I think business schools do have an impact on the lives of our graduates. The reason I say that is I meet graduates all the time who tell me they are transformed by the experience and I don't think I'm meeting just a selected subset. But it is possible that if our societal or community impact is limited, we may choose to refocus our priorities.

What are business-school deans like you hoping to take away from this study?

If we find out there has been no impact, we are certainly going to reevaluate ourselves. But if you look at this through the lens of society, organizations, and individuals, I'd be surprised if there wasn't something that was traceable. Something like 39% of Fortune 500 CEOs are business graduates. This might be an expression of interest on the part of the individuals themselves, but it also tells you something about the impact of management education.

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