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Are Business Schools on the Right Path? – Part 1

August 4, 2012 by

GMAT blog, business school, bschool, MBA“The tragedy of the world is that those who are imaginative have but slight experience, and those who are experienced have feeble imaginations.”

– Alfred North Whitehead, in an address to the American Association of the Collegiate Schools of Business, 1927

In a 2005 Harvard Business Review Online publication titled How business schools lost their way, authors Warren G. Bennis and James O’Toole theorized that business schools had come to focus much too heavily on “scientific” research (deriding quotes were placed around the word scientific by the authors).  This misplaced pedagogical focal point had hence caused the production of graduates (i.e., MBAs) that were ill-prepared for actual, real-world management.  In Bennis’ own words, the thrust of their thesis is this:

“Most leading B-schools, in a valid attempt to become respected and respectable, had adopted an inappropriate model of academic excellence.  Instead of measuring themselves in terms of the competence of their graduates, or by how well their faculties understood important drivers of business performance, they measured themselves solely by the rigor of their scientific research. There’s nothing wrong with rigor, but using that as the sole determinant of academic excellence not only circumscribed business education, but made it less relevant to business practitioners.”1

The aught-5 article blew up the switchboards and culled hot debate across academia.  Some remained calmer than others, but all found the conclusions worth discussing (or lambasting, whatever the case may be).  By their own admission, the statements made were generalizations and did not apply to some b-schools.  Notable exemplars called out by the authors were Harvard and Haas.  They also mentioned a couple of institutions who had at least identified the problem and committed to rectify it, namely the University of Dallas and USC’s Marshall School (the latter being the Bennis’ employer).  Those institutions aside, however, the vast majority of graduate schools of business were, in their assessment, egregiously misdirected and therefore churning out unacceptable graduates.

Seven years later, Warren G. Bennis popped up on Bloomberg Businessweek’s web log, and over the course of two installments, Bennis asks the question: Have business schools found their way?

In the first blog post, he points to a recent Academy of Management (AOM) journal publication that, ironically, empirically studies the impact of scholarly research in management as it pertains to both AOM members (i.e., management academics) and those who are not members (implicitly, then, practitioners of management outside of academia).  The result?  According to authors Herman Aguinis, Isabel Suarez-Gonzalez, Gustavo Lannelongue, and Harry Joo, “the scientific practice gap does not seem to be narrowing.”  Bennis then goes on to say that “researchers in the field of management are obsessively preoccupied with the impact of their research on their colleagues, and seem to be willfully indifferent to, if not ignorant of, everybody else, including managers.”2

In other words, business academics are more concerned with their peers than they are with business people.  Thus, the original thesis put forth by Bennis and O’Toole seems only to be entrenching itself even further, which, if you buy into their assessment, is sad and unfortunate.  However, Warren Bennis is surprisingly heartened.  Apparently, there is an ameliorative trend he believes is taking hold in the practice of educating managers.

In an upcoming post, I will examine Bennis’ silver lining and offer up my personal assessment of business education in light of the Bennis/O’Toole observations.

In the meantime, many of you are in the middle of the bschool admissions process, and I would love to hear your thoughts on the state of business education.  Please post comments below.


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