Don’t throw the baby out with the business-school bathwater

The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia. WestCoastivieS/Wikimedia, CC BY

Business schools have received quite a lot of criticism with some critics even suggesting that they should be bulldozed. These attacks build upon the blame assigned to business – and thus business schools – for many of the world’s ills, including the financial crash, climate change and environmental destruction. In fact, the role and purpose of business schools has long been a subject of soul-searching within the schools themselves, as they have sought to find legitimacy for their role, a relevance for their research and indeed a rigour for the managerial profession.

Business schools and the business-school sector – accreditation organisations, rankings and evaluation bodies – have responded by emphasising (and attempting to measure) responsibility, sustainability, and impact that may often seem like window dressing. In this context it seems quite easy to question the purpose of business-school education and their activities, but before jumping to conclusions there is a more nuanced story…

A more nuanced view…

Before we seek to assign responsibility to business schools for the failings of capitalism and ills of developed modern societies, it is important to recognise the work going on in many schools as centres for learning and research, and instigators of change. Indeed this work has been going on for many years and before the current panic – before the emergence of terms such as impact, sustainability, responsibility and other buzzwords from the business lexicon. Business schools are in fact made up of economists, sociologists, psychologists, political scientists, statisticians and other academics – many doing rigorous, top-quality research on the big challenges societies face, and sharing the issues with their students.

Business schools provide a ready source of employment with the massive growth of business students against more limited job opportunities in discipline-focussed departments. In fact, the mix of academics in business schools supports interdisciplinary approaches that are capable of dealing with new phenomena and major challenges. The drive for a wider purpose is a preoccupation among business-school leaders and accreditation agencies require a certain coherence between activities and declared mission or raison d’être. While MBA courses have been criticised for propagating dominant wisdom and short-termism, business schools are also home to many other more critical perspectives and discourses.

Furthermore, the schools are made up of individual academics, each with a passion for his or her topic, a desire to always deepen one’s expertise and a need to answer the questions that greater knowledge brings. It is this passion that inspires them to teach and promote critical thinking – in the classroom and with stakeholders. And it is academic freedom that allows them to undertake the research that identifies and addresses the major challenges societies faces. Ironically this freedom also allows academics to publish frank reflections as insiders – voices we rarely see from insiders in other influential institutions but also material for critics.

Business schools are making a difference…

I was recently asked to give a short talk to parents about members of faculty. I chose ten of the faculty who happened to be there on the day in order to illustrate what a business school does. It was, in fact, easy to show how business-school academics made a difference – how they can have a positive societal impact. On the day examples included… research on how to manage new green energies, policy advice on the obesity risks in food marketing, research the roots of the financial crisis, expert advice to the United Nations on sustainability, and the gamification of pedagogy to aide everyone from school-age children to executives. All of these issues are integrated into the classroom to promote change. Furthermore the impact of making difficult subjects accessible to students through top-quality teaching is often overlooked.

That was one speech, on one day, in one school and I am quite sure other top schools could readily produce their own examples whereby they make a difference. On another day, as a former head of a doctoral school, I could have equally pointed to doctoral students pursuing their own research with societal impact and a desire to share their passions with society. In fact, it would have been possible to find a range of students doing societaly-relevant studies – many of them part-time (paying for the privilege to do research not to become rich), following their passion to rise to an intellectual challenge and to answer their own burning questions.

Far from perfect

This is not to say we can defend all that goes on in business schools – can anyone do that for their organisation or sector? Business school alumni will undoubtedly be leading organisations that are exploiting, polluting, degrading fragile resources, and even propagating corruption. We can still question whether business schools are critical enough of dominant market logics and short-termism. Equally some may question the relevance of teaching “management” to so many students.

In addition, some business-school research is only read by a small handful of interested academics and has limited impact other than on the CV of the author. The sector accepts this limitation and recently a number institutions have joined forces to promote Responsible Research in Business and Management.

Critiques have lamented the so-called isomorphic pressures that encourage business schools to behave in more or less the same way. Accreditation bodies, ranking organisations, funders, companies, students and competition between the schools themselves all combine to create certain ‘rules of the game’. However, the fact is that all institutions are subject to these isomorphic pressures, whether it is a fast-food outlet, a global car manufacturer, a national government or indeed a business school. Schools, like other institutions, cannot easily opt out of the rules of the game, just as a football team cannot decide that goals are no longer the currency of winning games.

None of these failings seem to add up to a case for annihilation of the business-school system.

The weakness may also be a strength

The rankings are perhaps one of the strongest of those isomorphic pressures as business schools seek to boost the position of their programmes or schools nationally and internationally. This process is not always helpful for diversity and societal impact. Yet Schools also seek to comply with the more positive quality requirements of the prestigious triple crown of international accreditations – EQUIS, AASCB and AMBA. National accreditations further reinforce common ‘rules of the game’ with quality requirements for “qualified” staff and teaching standards.

In spite of their weaknesses, these systems may also make is possible for schools to make a difference and have an impact. Ideas that originate from well-ranked, accredited schools have influence and a certain traction in the media. Furthermore, in the absence of a better system, these rankings provide a measure of prestige, notoriety or visibility for students and companies. Meanwhile quality accreditations and measures of academic production provide national and international research funders with a guide when business schools compete with top academic institutions for funding.

Hold off the bulldozer…

So before we seek to bulldoze business schools and call into question their influence, it is important to remember that there are many positive things happening. The academics that make up these schools have been having an impact before the current round of criticism. They have been shaping the lives of students and organisations – in the classroom, through their relevant research, and via the dissemination activities. Making a difference to society.

Could business schools do more? Yes. Could they be more critical of large organisations or dominant logics? Yes. Could they could perhaps communicate better from their research on the failings in wider society? Yes. Are there redundant activities? Yes. But we cannot expect business schools to be responsible for the actions of all their alumni or partner organisations just as we cannot expect them to take the blame of the processes by which real impact in society occurs… in an opaque world of the corridors of power with politicians, lobbyists and large organisations.

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