Every couple of years, the popular press muses whether the research conducted at Business Schools has any practical relevance. It looks like it’s time again (see Value of B-School Research).
According to the Economist:
Most MBA students will never read an issue of Administrative Science Quarterly, a well-regarded business-research journal…A recent issue included “Forging an Identity: An Insider-Outsider Study of Processes Involved in the Formation of Organisational Identity” and “Socioemotional Wealth and Corporate Responses to Institutional Pressures: Do Family Firms Pollute Less?”
Don’t worry if you can’t make heads or tails of the research from the titles. Truth be told, you’re not supposed to, and sometimes, neither can I. But I’m ok with that.
If vapid bestsellers like “Who Moved My Cheese?” are at one end of the spectrum of management writing, then the typical ASQ article is resolutely at the other. The task of a business-school professor is to meet students somewhere in the middle. Over the last decade, there has been a chorus of critics proclaiming that they have not done a good enough job.
This year’s Sumantra Ghoshal Conference, held at London Business School, debated whether strategy research has become irrelevant to the practice of management. The late Mr Ghoshal published a paper in 2005 castigating business schools for heaping “bad theory” on their students.
I have attended several of the Ghoshal Conferences and have written about my experiences (see On Managerial Relevance, Initial Thoughts from LBS Conference, and Final Thoughts from LBS Conference). I was unable to attend the conference this year due to scheduling conflicts, but I still think the conference is a wholly worthwhile endeavor, …and I look forward to returning in coming years.
But back to the Economist article:
…Warren Bennis and James O’Toole, both at the University of Southern California, published an article in the Harvard Business Review [similarly] criticising MBA programmes for paying too much attention to “scientific” research and not enough to what current and future managers actually needed. Business schools, they argued, would be better off acting more like their professional counterparts, such as medical or law schools, nurturing skilled practitioners as well as frequent publishers.
But since, according to Bennis and O’Toole, Business Schools don’t act like medical or law schools, the question then becomes:
…should a prospective student worry about a faculty’s research prowess when applying to a school?
Although I understand (and even agree with) some of the criticisms of Business School research, I believe current, and future, executives can benefit from being exposed to research emanating from Business Schools.
And it’s not only research exposure that students receive in the classroom. Many professors are imparting critical-thinking skills by applying that research to real-world problems. For example, in Impractically Relevant I wrote:
I believe that we, as professors, …play an important role in bringing current research into the classroom. It is up to us to expose students to state-of-the art research, to discuss the important questions of the field, to synthesize the existing findings, to explain those findings in an accessible way, to impart received wisdom, to identify remaining gaps and unanswered questions, and to honestly acknowledge the shortcomings of our work. If we can do all these things, we (and our students) gain a better appreciation for the complexities of the real world. In fact, I believe so strongly in this charge that I feel that if we are not bringing research into the classroom, then we are failing our students. We owe them the best education possible, and it doesn’t mean spoon-feeding them “the answers”, but rather, engaging them in intellectually stimulating discourse and debate so that they can come to their own (informed) conclusions.
In addition to our function as translators, dissemenators, and synthesizers of scientific knowledge inside the classroom:
We also impact practice in other ways too. For example, hardly a day goes by that I see a newspaper without a quote from business school faculty. We are constantly asked to give our opinions on current events. What’s more, business school faculty are often asked to inform policy – whether by proffering opinions to politicians or testifying on business practice. In this sense then, we help shape the game and inform the agenda – helping decide which issues are important and which are not.
[Further], ask the folks from the investment community and hedge fund universe if business school professors have had any impact on their practice. Ask government employees at the Justice Department whether business school economists have had any impact on the cases they bring and/or the outcomes of those cases. Ask CPA’s whether accounting faculty have had an impact on how they practice their craft.Although the full impact of our research on practice varies depending upon the business school discipline (accounting, finance, economics, marketing, strategy, organizational behavior, operations management, etc.), I’m sure I could find an example of some profound impact that an academician from each discipline has had on practice.
So my reaction to this article is consistent with that which I’ve expressed in the past: I think the stories of our demise have been greatly exaggerated. I think we do have a profound influence on practice, although not always in ways that are widely recognized, and in ways that are often difficult to quantify.
As I concluded several years ago:
Do I believe that business schools ought to be relevant? Absolutely. Do I believe that rigorous research serves an important role in our field? Absolutely. Do I think that we are failing in our goals to be both relevant and rigorous?
Although I will be the first to acknowledge that there is room for improvement, so far, I continue to believe that research-oriented Business Schools are providing a public good.