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The undue influence of US business schools

Advocating greed is good.

The latest ranking of business schools has just been released by the Princeton Review and a certain type of business school continues to dominate – American ones. Having earned their reputation over the years by producing some of the world’s top business leaders, their influence stretches far beyond the lecture theatre into the business world and society more widely.

But more questions must be asked of the huge level of influence they have. They have arguably had a disproportionate – and sometimes damaging – effect on the world of business. This isn’t necessarily an argument of quality. But the culture they have propounded has in many ways hurt the global economy – which business schools should exist to serve.

The level of influence that American business schools have on ideas and debate around what constitutes good business practice, as well as the relationship between the schools and businesses themselves, is overextended. A gold standard is one thing, but we have reached a point where we have a monoculture in leadership and management to the exclusion of others.

An excess of influence

The most significant example of this influence in action is the supremacy of “positive psychology” and “positive organisational behaviour” ideas in the years running up to the global financial crisis and ensuing recession from 2008. Excessive positivity among leaders played an essential role in creating the conditions that led to economic crises: a culture of greed is good, risk-taking, over-optimistic forecasting. They arguably have created an over-emphasis on success, or at least as manifested through a financial prism, rather than paying attention to background problems and the long game.

On reflection, a host of mistakes have been made under the cover of positivity. Directors who dared to raise concerns and doubts about levels of risk were shouted down, or worse still, dismissed. Bad news was buried until it was too late or overtaken by worse news. People at all levels of organisations were given stretching targets and encouraged to talk up their achievements. Managers would act as cheerleaders for all their line reports, celebrating daily successes, right up until the moment of profit warnings or worse still, redundancies are announced.

And what has actually been learnt from the economic crisis in terms of attitudes to risk, and the need for greater honesty and reality in the approaches of leaders and managers?

Pandering to the rankings system

Following the US model and working to build recognition and favour within the US system has implications: changing the role of business schools, their nature and the basic idea of what their function is and embedding a greater sense of needing to serve society as a whole.

Academics feel the pressure on a day-to-day level through the influential rankings systems such as the Princeton Review. Many, like the Financial Times, use their own list of “top” journals to determine a quality of research score.

A high proportion of these are US-based and research-centric. Careers as business school academics are often dependent on achieving targets for publication in those journals that count, and so we need to work within the system. In order to be published, topics and approaches need to be sympathetic to the approach taken by US journals.

So we have a self-perpetuating system: contribute research and thinking which will gain approval from US reviewers and you’re a winner. But more critical analyses grounded in practice, can lead to hostile reviews and you lose out.

In the UK, we benefit from looking beyond our borders and testing ourselves against competition for space in respected international publications. Why don’t the US schools do the same? Quality is always important, but so is the ability to challenge conventions when necessary, when they have served their purpose and particularly when there is the danger that certain ideas are creating unforeseen problems. After all, in the UK, much of our research funding still comes from the tax payer so, there is a moral pull, back to doing research that actually matters and serves society.

Focus on boosting the economy

The bigger question is, should business school academics be spending a disproportionate amount of time fighting to get published in top academic journals? Debate is starting to surface among academic managers and applied research scholars around having a much greater impact on the economy by supporting the growth of small and medium enterprises through focusing on research topics with clear impact that could feed more strongly into economic recovery.

This isn’t an argument against doing research in general, but ensuring a clear-eyed sense of reality – especially when the public purse is footing the bill – and all the messy, complex issues that come with running economies, running businesses and managing people. The Small Business Charter and the proactive role played by the Association of Business Schools are among the first of many positive moves in this direction and might well give the UK an advantage in this space.

In our current economic situation, there needs to be new clarity and a re-definition of what business schools are for, taking us back to basics. Business schools should be judged and valued on their relevance and what they contribute to business and to economies.

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