If you’ve been following my blog, you’ve known that I have a side interest in how practice perceives business schools (see Ever and Easy Target, Practically Irrelevant, and/or On Managerial Relevance).
The latest piece from the Financial Times (see Why Business Ignores Business Schools) seems especially damning (hat tip, Kenneth Amaeshi).
There are three main criticisms in this article. First, the article claims that business practitioners rarely show up at academic business conferences, unlike their counterparts in law and medicine. Now I don’t much attend academic law or medical conferences, but I certainly agree that I don’t meet many practicing managers at the academic conferences that I do attend.
Is that necessarily a bad thing?
I’m not sure I see academic conferences as the type of venues in which we should exchange information with practicing managers. In our field, we have specialized, practitioner conferences for the purposes of engaging in dialog with practice, and for distilling the knowledge that we’ve created in a manner that can be translated for, and transmitted to, managers.
The second criticism is that practitioners pay little attention to us. The author writes:
Chief executives…pay little attention to what business schools do or say.
That sounds about right. But to be fair, I’d be hard pressed to think of a CEO who has much time for anything outside her responsibility to run her company. If I were a shareholder, I’d be very skeptical of my CEO if she spent much time attending and/or participating in academic business conferences. So that begs the question, are CEO’s really our target audience? Probably not. In many ways, our true target audience (depending upon what discipline within the business school you are in) is middle-level managers and/or consultants. It is the middle-level manager or consultant who is the consumer/user of our information who, in turn, impacts the behavior of organizations at the highest levels.
Finally, the article claims that we academicians write in an arcane, technical, jargon-laden manner that obfuscates whatever nugget of useful information that may exist in our research. I’ve seen this done before, so I understand the criticism. And quite frankly, I’m a little tired of all the jargon too. It doesn’t bother me that business school researchers write in this manner per se (after all, I understand most of it). However, what sticks in my craw is that a researcher should be able to explain his research in a way that makes it clear to any practitioner, and many cannot. If he cannot explain his research in a simple and accessible manner, then it is not clear to me that the he understands the phenomena well enough to explain why the phenomena should be important to managers. For me, this is the ultimate litmus test for a successful academic in the field of business – one who can at once produce, and explain, academic research.
I do agree in principle with some of the criticisms levied at business schools, and in particular, at our research. However, I think it would be unfair to categorize our research as uninfluential. For example, 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.