Rethinking Business Schools
Focus of business schools
What should be the focus and nature of business schools be in the future? I have argued elsewhere (Sulej, 2015), that business schools need to change direction and escape from the homogeneous and “me too” directions generated by the pursuit of so called “world class research” and spurious league table positions. These directions are rarely engaged with the more effective focus of understanding and serving the needs of business communities and wider economic requirements.
In fact, the directions generated by the pursuit of “world class research” and positions in spurious league tables are creating homogeneity and arguably are basically regressive in nature. This is because the focus on such outcomes reduces opportunities for direct business engagement and research plus reduces opportunities for students and employers, failing to develop the relevant skills for managers, supervisors, employees and entrepreneurs in an increasingly fast changing world. Business schools really need to become more business-like in their approach.
Business schools need to focus on the things that they are best at and move away from turgid discipline based teaching methods and reconfigure their teaching approach, research approaches and fundamental administration. Business schools have to engage more effectively with their immediate business communities, especially in terms of developing “practice intelligence”, (Sternberg & Wagner, 1991) and the creation of employability related skills. Recent surveys have shown that in regions of the UK more than 85% of SMEs have no understanding has to how universities might work with them to positively improve their businesses.
A focus on such elements would not only enhance the reputation of the business school but also provide additional opportunities for active and well grounded research plus increased income through direct and practical consultancy beyond the income provided by state or research council funding and a focus on international students. Several key management thinkers e.g., Mintzberg, 2004; Bennis & O’Toole, 2005; and others have argued for the primary need to close the gap between research and practice and for a return to a focus on professional practice not purely academic research.
As global complexity increases business schools must take a more focused approach in terms of “think global, act local”. The majority of business school students are not likely to be employed by large corporations, more likely SMEs. Alternatively, they may work more as freelancers or entrepreneurs, currently business schools arguably do not provide the relevant skills to work in these environments.
In my own research I have found opinions that actually say some business school graduates are unemployable in terms of their competencies and underlying skill sets. This situation needs to change and fast. In addition, many business schools actually lack courses in the key areas currently demanded by SMEs such as practical, effective customer service skills and related communication.
What does the business school of the future need?
So, what will such a change in focus mean for the needs of the business school in the future? Such a change means that business schools and their associated universities need to become more flexible and pro-active in their approach to working with the wider business community. This may require business schools uncoupling from the university at large and having the freedom to pursue their own agenda’s. In addition, the business school should stop being seen as the “cash cow” that can be used to subsidize underperforming departments. Business schools need to be able to freely engage in collaboration, as well as fostering creativity and innovation, unrestricted by bureaucratic decision making via central university channels.
There needs to be stronger development programmes for individual faculty members, especially in terms of engaging with external businesses. Many faculties and their leaders are abysmal in this regard often causing innovative projects to falter or die because of restrictive administrative heritage and poor decision making processes. These failures disadvantage individuals, students and businesses plus the wider economic community in terms of lost opportunities.
Changes in the use of technology based teaching methods and the whole approach to teaching and researching business are also needed. Moving away from sterile discipline based dogma and moving more towards “active learning” based on engaging with live problems in active businesses not the somewhat sterile case study methods of old. Such engagement requires more active and holistic methods of teaching drawing freely on inter-disciplinary approaches, something sadly lacking currently.
The business school of the future will also need to be much more concerned with sustainability issues rather than the focus on perennial growth in the face of finite resources and increasing competition. In terms of resourcing and finance; business schools should move away from an over reliance on government related funding and a steady influx of international students. A more business-like and entrepreneurial perspective is required.
What road should we take?
Overall, the business school of the future must be more flexible and focused on developing “practice intelligence”, not just for students but for faculty and businesses too. Preferably business schools will be more focused on their local and regional business communities i.e. SMEs and not constantly in pursuit of the same global corporations as everyone else. Business schools must be more entrepreneurial organizations in terms of financing and effective decision making processes that encourage collaboration and creativity/innovation. There needs to be a balance between theoretical and practical perspectives and leadership has to think in terms of clearer goals and a better balancing of the purpose of the business school with its resources and capabilities.
The fact is that not all business schools can be “world-class”. This means there is a need for a different kind of business school leader and the faculty within. The business school of the future must be flexible, positive in outlook and be much more pragmatic and effective in researching and solving business problems in order to develop the managers and organizations that we need in the future so as to create the benefits that we want for society as a whole. Current structures, processes and leaders are unlikely to give us these outcomes. The time for radical change is at hand.
Julian C. Sulej, author of Rethinking Business Schools, is an award winning educator and manager with a successful track record in business development and higher education.
Bennis, W.G. and O’Toole, J. (2005), How Business Schools Lost Their Way Harvard Business Review Vol. 82(3), pp.96-104
Mintzberg, H. (2004), Managers not MBAs, Pearson Education, London, UK.
Sternberg, R.J. and Wagner, R.K. (1991), Promoting Individual and Organizational Productivity through Practice Intelligence: The Role of Tacit Knowledge in Personal and Organizational Effectiveness ARI Research Note 91-52.
Sulej, J.C. (2015), Rethinking Business Schools, Palgrave-Macmillan, London, UK