Have Business Schools Found Their Way?

When the Harvard Business Review published an article Jim O’Toole and I wrote in 2005, “How Business Schools Lost Their Way,” we were startled by the commotion it stirred up. Reactions ran the gamut, from constructive controversy and reflection to untethered outrage. A few B-school faculty and deans attacked us as anti-science, and one added, “nut-cases.” A former student who started his MBA that fall at a top-five-ranked B-school was welcomed on the first day by the dean, who based his talk on our article, from which he read long excerpts with an admixture of fury and sarcasm, as if it were the Antichrist of everything his MBA program stood for. The finale, my student said, was “dramatically brilliant. [The dean] ripped your article to shreds, tossed them in the air, and stomped noisily on them as if they were carrying a deadly virus.”

There were also many encouraging signs. O’Toole and I were invited to many of the top business schools to defend or support the main thesis of the article, which in a nutshell is this: Most leading B-schools, in a valid attempt to become respected and respectable, had adopted an inappropriate model of academic excellence. Instead of measuring themselves in terms of the competence of their graduates, or by how well their faculties understood important drivers of business performance, they measured themselves solely by the rigor of their scientific research. There’s nothing wrong with rigor, but using that as the sole determinant of academic excellence not only circumscribed business education, but made it less relevant to business practitioners.

In 2005, MBA programs faced intense criticism for failing to prepare leaders for good corporate jobs. What was ignored or forgotten was that business education is not identical to traditional academic disciplines. It is a professional school, meaning that it must serve a far more clogged and complicated cartography of stakeholders than the typical academic disciplines. In a pure sense, academic disciplines produce esoteric research, i.e., knowledge solely for one’s disciplinary colleagues. Professional schools are challenged and obligated to create both esoteric and exoteric knowledge, accessible and relevant to business leaders (and the general public).

It is totally understandable, and now I would argue necessary, for B-schools to want to overcome the Rodney Dangerfield syndrome: “I don’t get no respect … that’s the story of my life.” For the first half of the 20th century, B-schools were more like trade schools; professors were good ol’ boys, dispensing tired war stories and cracker-barrel wisdom. When I first started teaching at MIT, what is now known as the Sloan School of Management was called Course XV, Department of Industrial Management. The production course was taught by the manager of a nearby General Motors assembly plant.

Today, I doubt that any top B-school would hire, let alone promote, a tenure-track professor whose primary qualification is managing an assembly line, no matter how terrific his performance. Nor would they hire professors who wrote only for publications like the Harvard Business Review. For that matter, were I still a young and ambitious tenure-track professor, I wouldn’t even consider writing a blog for Bloomberg Businessweek. (It’s tenure, stupid!) So it’s no wonder that B-schools, in their quest not to share space in the basement of the academy with schools of social work and education, embraced the same standards of academic excellence as those of the “hard disciplines.” I used to waggishly refer to this as “physics envy.”

In this respect, the orthodoxy hasn’t changed very much since the ’05 article, except perhaps to have gotten worse. While writing this blog this morning, I came upon a recently published, ultra-scientific piece of research that focused on the impact of scholarly research on “internal stakeholders” (members of the Academy of Management) and “external stakeholders,” or those outside the profession of management education. The sample included 384 of the 550 most highly cited management scholars in the past three decades. The main finding: “the science-practice gap does not seem to be narrowing.”

According to the authors—Herman Aguinis, Isabel Suarez-Gonzalez, Gustavo Lannelongue, and Harry Joo—researchers in the field of management are obsessively preoccupied with the impact of their research on their colleagues, and seem to be willfully indifferent to, if not ignorant of, everybody else, including managers. An anonymous reviewer of this journal article wrote that the results “should give administrators pause.” An understatement, to say the least.

Two of the most vexing findings: 40 percent of the 40 scholars with the highest impact both inside and outside the Academy of Management were affiliated with only three universities. Of the 40 “most influentials,” 31 received their doctorates 30 years ago (in 1982) or earlier. I am confident that many less senior scholars are capable of research that can have an impact on both internal and external stakeholders. But why should they! The prevailing reward system is stacked against them … especially if they are ambitious and smart.

This is the bad news, but stay tuned. Change is in the air. Joel Podolny, for example, the former dean of the Yale School of Management and now the vice president and dean of Apple University, told me that there is a strong desire on the part of faculty and deans at leading schools “to find their way again.” In my next blog I’m going to focus on a few outstanding examples of B-schools that have found their way and are doing good things that will make an impact on both internal and external stakeholders.

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