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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Scientists push back the boundaries of knowledge. They leave the practical implications to others

May 2005 > How Business Schools Lost Their Way
Too focused on “scientific” research, business schools are hiring professors with limited real-world experience and graduating students who are ill equipped to wrangle with complex, unquantifiable issues—in other words, the stuff of management.
by Warren G. Bennis and James O’Toole
Business schools are on the wrong track. For many years, MBA programs enjoyed rising respectability in academia and growing prestige in the business world. Their admissions were ever more selective, the pay packages of graduates ever more dazzling. Today, however, MBA programs face intense criticism for failing to impart useful skills, failing to prepare leaders, failing to instill norms of ethical behavior—and even failing to lead graduates to good corporate jobs. These criticisms come not just from students, employers, and the media but also from deans of some of America’s most prestigious business schools, including Dipak Jain at Northwestern University’s top-ranked Kellogg School of Management. One outspoken critic, McGill University professor Henry Mintzberg, says that the main culprit is a less-than-relevant MBA curriculum. If the number of reform efforts under way is any indication, many deans seem to agree with this charge. But genuine reform of the MBA curriculum remains elusive. We believe that is because the curriculum is the effect, not the cause, of what ails the modern business school.
The actual cause of today’s crisis in management education is far broader in scope and can be traced to a dramatic shift in the culture of business schools. During the past several decades, many leading B schools have quietly adopted an inappropriate—and ultimately self-defeating—model of academic excellence. Instead of measuring themselves in terms of the competence of their graduates, or by how well their faculties understand important drivers of business performance, they measure themselves almost solely by the rigor of their scientific research. They have adopted a model of science that uses abstract financial and economic analysis, statistical multiple regressions, and laboratory psychology. Some of the research produced is excellent, but because so little of it is grounded in actual business practices, the focus of graduate business education has become increasingly circumscribed—and less and less relevant to practitioners.
This scientific model, as we call it, is predicated on the faulty assumption that business is an academic discipline like chemistry or geology. In fact, business is a profession, akin to medicine and the law, and business schools are professional schools—or should be. Like other professions, business calls upon the work of many academic disciplines. For medicine, those disciplines include biology, chemistry, and psychology; for business, they include mathematics, economics, psychology, philosophy, and sociology. The distinction between a profession and an academic discipline is crucial. In our view, no curricular reforms will work until the scientific model is replaced by a more appropriate model rooted in the special requirements of a profession.
Before asking how business education should change, we need to examine its evolution. Most business schools claim a dual mission: to educate practitioners and to create knowledge through research. Historically, business schools have emphasized the former at the expense of the latter. In fact, for the first half of the twentieth century, B schools were more akin to trade schools; most professors were good ole boys dispensing war stories, cracker-barrel wisdom, and the occasional practical pointer. We remember when MIT’s Sloan School of Management was known as MIT School of Industrial Management and its production class was taught by the manager of a nearby General Motors assembly plant. That was a useful, but hardly comprehensive and professional, education.
Then, in 1959, prompted at least in part by the enormous demand for professional managers in a booming postwar economy, the Ford and Carnegie foundations issued devastating reports on the woeful state of business school research and theory. Both foundations recommended ways to give B schools respectable academic underpinnings and offered grant money toward achieving that end. Driven by conscience and cash, top-tier universities began to treat their business schools almost as seriously as law schools. By the end of the twentieth century, nearly all the nation’s leading business schools—the two dozen or so elite MBA-granting institutions and another dozen schools fighting to join the highest echelon—offered a curriculum of academic distinction. But, in the process, their focus switched, and now the objective of most B schools is to conduct scientific research. Going back to the trade school paradigm would be a disaster. Still, we believe it is necessary to strike a new balance between scientific rigor and practical relevance.
The Scientific Model
Virtually none of today’s top-ranked business schools would hire, let alone promote, a tenure-track professor whose primary qualification is managing an assembly plant, no matter how distinguished his or her performance. Nor would they hire professors who write articles only for practitioner reviews, like this one. Instead, the best B schools aspire to the same standards of academic excellence that hard disciplines embrace—an approach sometimes waggishly referred to as “physics envy.” In departments such as physics and economics, top faculty members have few responsibilities other than to attend to their disciplines. They are not required to train practitioners or to demonstrate practical uses of their work; and they are free to do whatever research they choose and to produce subsequent, even more focused, generations of scholars. In this scientific model, the university exists primarily to support the scholar’s interests. For the most part, universities accept this arrangement and the intellectual premise on which it rests: namely, that universities help society advance by supporting scientists who push back the boundaries of knowledge. They leave the practical implications to others.
It’s very different in schools of law and medicine, which deliberately engage with the outside world. Law schools expect faculty members to be first-rate scholars; in fact, articles published in law reviews are often cited in trials. But these institutions also value professors’ ability to teach. Similarly, medical schools carry on advanced biological research, but most members of the teaching faculty are also practicing doctors.
Why have business schools embraced the scientific model of physicists and economists rather than the professional model of doctors and lawyers? Although few B school faculty members would admit it, professors like it that way. This model gives scientific respectability to the research they enjoy doing and eliminates the vocational stigma that business school professors once bore. In short, the model advances the careers and satisfies the egos of the professoriat. And, frankly, it makes things easier: Though scientific research techniques may require considerable skill in statistics or experimental design, they call for little insight into complex social and human factors and minimal time in the field discovering the actual problems facing managers.
Warren G. Bennis is the University Professor and Distinguished Professor of Business Administration and the founding chairman of the Leadership Institute at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business in Los Angeles. James O’Toole is a research professor at USC’s Center for Effective Organizations and the author of Creating the Good Life (Rodale, 2005).

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