Does business ignore the business schools?

Note: This post first featured on “The Art of…” blog, under my name: David Atkinson

The following post is based on a letter I wrote to the Financial Times newspaper on 16th January – though it was not published by them.

Following an article by columnist Michael Skapinker (January 7), I ask the question: does “…business [really ignore] business schools”? Or is it simply that business merely ignores such academic outputs as at suggested by the title “A multi-level investigation of antecedents and consequences of team member boundary spanning behaviour”. After all, MBAs are products of business schools, and these are simply not ignored by business.

The issue Michael writes about is a perenial one within the area of management research and education. There is a perceived gap between the usefulness of much management education emanating from the academic business schoole and the application of that research in management practice. The same gap is not perceived to exist in other professional fields such as engineers, doctors and lawyers – where the academic output of their schools is understood to be of greater relevance to practice, with journals avidly read by practioners.

However, following a response by Rita Gunther McGrath’s in “The upside to business schools” (January 14), I also ask: is it a little too reactionary and simplistic to cast aside such insight as Michael Skapinker’s observation on law versus management as a professional occupation? A counter argument based merely on the apparently different career structures of lawyers v business people misses, I believe, an opportunity to build on Mr Skapinker’s observation.

Key, I think, to Mr Skapinker’s argument lies within the closure of his piece.

“The reason that real-life lawyers, doctors and engineers have no problem with their research is not because they are smarter than business people, but because the research assists them in what they do. Lawyers and doctors proceed from a corpus of knowledge and build on it. They look at what their colleagues do and try to do it better.” With this premiss, I – as an ex-engineer – heartily agree.

However a second premiss concerning the predictability of material is, I believe, somewhat flawed. One can look at the entertainment value in the medical television series “House” to see the plausibility of a certain medical unpredictability, with symptoms and causality being difficult to correlate. Also, the nature of much that is legal work is dealing with exceptions, arguing new conclusions from both extant precedent and new evidence. Mysteries as challenging as the social phenomenon that is management practice, can, in practice, be found in all professional walks of life.

Here we can perhaps note what most “historically” established professions appear to have understood, for some time, is that while many of the essential skills of a profession – be they medical, engineering or legal skills – can be readily taught in a classroom, the “qualified practioner” requires both structured practical training and professional experience. While it may be common to site the 6 or so years it takes to qualify as a medical practioner, certainly in the UK it can also take some 6years to gain status as a Chartered Engineer. Lawyers too, also require to sit professional exams based on practice and gain experience under supervision before being qualifed to practice.

Much of what is achieved in developing professional capability is the application of a body of aquired knowledge to a situation at hand to achieve a desired outcome. This capability requires attention to reason, logic and argument – all skills grounded in philosophy and embedded in the study of the law, medicine and engineering. In short, professional practice requires the learning of how to create new knowledge on the fly. Doing becomes epistemic.

“Managers tend to be practical…” yes! But, I argue, so are practioners of medicine, law and engineering. Management practice can build on “competitors’ achievements”, and the best doctors, engineers, lawyers and managers will also often seek to do something different. The difference, I argue, between managers and others is that the relatively young “profession” of management (both those that aspire to it and those who aspire to teach it) have not accepted, to the same degree as the others, that achieving professional competance is a greater matter than the mere acquisition of knowledge.

Those in Management Academe who are concerned (for not all are) that work on such esoteric micro-concerns as “a multi-level investigation of antecedents and consequences of team member boundary spanning behaviour” must understand that there is much that can be done, academically, to develop the knowledge of practice rather than mere knowledge itself.

Does business ignore business schools? I would argue not. Business merely ignores what does not appear useful to them in practice. The development of an understanding of epistemic practice requires, however, such “backward-looking” analysis as “Harvard’s case study method”. The challenge is therefore not for academe to “struggle to tell us what innovators will do next”, and neither should business require that of academe. The challenge is, rather, for academe to also develop knowledge about how others can arrive at their own new knowledge through practice. Managers also need to “proceed from a corpus of knowledge and [to learn to] build on it”.


  4 comments for “Does business ignore the business schools?

  1. Allen
    August 7, 2009 at 10:15 am

    I chanced upon to view your blog and found it very interesting. Great … Keep it up!

  2. Kaka
    August 4, 2009 at 11:56 am

    Interesting text. You have a nice blog. Keep it up!

  3. davidsartof
    January 18, 2008 at 3:33 pm


    Thank you for your comment.

    It is, almost, a great pity (yet inevitable) that any good opinion piece can stir up so much potential for comment that it becomes impractical to address all points arising from it.

    Firstly, I fully support your ideas.

    Secondly, sitting outside of academe as I do, I might wish to comment that one reason so much material arises that would “…be equally at home in a sociological journal…” is perhaps that “Faculty” appears to be sociologically inclined! My own meagre observation (of limited UK academic experience) is that the cadre of our business and management schools is drawn heavily from what is now, no longer know as sociological studies.

    Perhaps the only way to overcome the apparent sociological bias – and to give fruit to your ideas – is to create a new international journal of relevance! Not an easy task – but also not impossible one either.


  4. Rita Gunther McGrath
    January 18, 2008 at 12:10 pm

    The article in the Financial Times does not describe the suggestions that many of us (myself included) have made to make management research of greater utility to managers. Some ideas: 1) make sure that our journals feature problems that are of interest to managers, not problems that would be equally at home in a sociology journal, for example; 2) have a dependent variable that matters to managers; and 3) have independent variables that are managerially actionable. High quality research is not doomed to irrelevance. With a relatively small shift in incentives (tracking impact, rewarding the development of tools, and including relevance in promotion decisions) one could envision much greater impact for the field of management. And given the incredibly scarce resources available to think and reflect in today’s hectic society, not to have impact is truly a resource wasted.


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