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Business schools should study flower shops, not blue chips

Bunches of case studies on your doorstep. Flower Factor, CC BY-NC

Legend has it that notorious American hold-up man Willie Sutton, who netted an estimated US$2m between the late 1920s and his final arrest in 1952, was once asked why he robbed banks. His reply: “Because that’s where the money is.”

It’s perfectly understandable that such ice-cold logic should also dictate the ambitions of most business school students. The majority dream of working in blue-chip companies that will reward them as handsomely as possible. They can hardly be faulted for aiming high.

The truth, though, is that for many the dream will remain precisely that. Some of the very best and most dynamic students will start their own businesses, while others will work in small or medium-sized companies. Their futures will lie not in the sprawling world of the multinational but in the comparatively cosy confines of the local economy.

This poses serious questions about the relevance of much of what is taught in modern business schools. It’s difficult to see how theories that are almost exclusively entrenched in the art of thinking big can be of genuine relevance when practice turns out to be rooted in something altogether more modest.

Of course, a major problem is that many business schools feel they have precious little incentive to change their modus operandi. Perhaps unavoidably, immense financial success has fostered more than a trace of self-satisfaction. It’s not especially tempting to look beyond the bottom line when, to put it bluntly, you’re raking it in. Here, too, the philosophy of Willie Sutton reigns supreme.

Yet the voices of doom are growing louder and more persistent. Even in the US, the sector’s acknowledged powerhouse, there are warnings that a perfect storm may be gathering. The explosion in online learning and the nascent trend for companies to bring management teaching in-house are the most frequently cited threats.

How ironic would it be if business schools, with all their theoretical knowledge of creative destruction, were unable to rise to such challenges? How perverse would it be if the proponents-in-chief of innovation were unceremoniously steamrollered by progress?

Think local

Although some may well deem it beneath them, a greater focus on the local could provide an answer – and, indeed, an escape route. The glamour and appeal of being “masters of the universe” is undeniable, but neither is the stark exigencies of reality. We need to recognise the merits of far deeper engagement with the small business community.

One of the most significant and desirable outcomes of such a shift would be the co-creation of useful knowledge. As numerous critics and various policy reports have pointed out, too much of the research that business schools undertake is limited to observation, abstraction and dissemination to students.

Traditionally, collaborations with small businesses are not just rare but characterised by the wrong sort of give-and-take: they give, we take. The aim should be to build relationships from which everyone benefits.

Medical schools offer an interesting model. The synergies are obvious: “We’ll cure you of that nasty little rash if you let our students watch how we do it.” The patient may be in no fit state to bargain, but the gains for all concerned are manifest.

It’s easy to see the advantages to students if more business schools were to adopt an analogous approach. They would receive a meaningful grounding in small business life and thus be much better equipped to tackle the informed decisions, calculated risks and myriad pressures likely to punctuate many of their careers. It might not sound like a curriculum component to stir the heart and set pulses racing, but that doesn’t mean large numbers of graduates wouldn’t find it of enormous value.

Take and give

Meanwhile, many of the people who already constitute the small business community would welcome the expertise and experience that business schools are able to deliver. Delivering helpful insights into effective administration, the ability to survive and thrive, professional credibility and other everyday concerns would be a key element of our side of the deal.

By way of example, consider the case of a couple working in the floristry trade in a provincial town. They attended an executive education workshop hosted by Nottingham University Business School to seek advice about how to compete in a market with low profit margins. In due course they were able to put into practice solutions based on the more efficient use of staff and premises and novel means of differentiating themselves from the competition – and students were accorded an enhanced grasp of the day-to-day difficulties of life beyond the blue-chips.

How terribly dull, some might think. How dreadfully parochial. Flower shops? Who cares? Companies with a handful of staff and six-figure annual turnovers? So what?

Make no mistake, that type of outlook is still common. It isn’t just innately snobbish: it’s hopelessly blinkered and inherently self-defeating. And it’s precisely the kind of attitude that may yet see many a business school – not to mention many of its graduates – flounder, fail and sink without trace.

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