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.