Jan 6 2014, 11:38am CST | by Forbes
The Gates Foundation is trying to reshape education. Having started with K-12, they are now moving on to colleges and supporting more online education, competencies, and measurable results. But there is one area where they have missed the boat – and where their presence could offer immense returns. That would be in re-sparking the debate about the right balance between theory and practice in business schools. The Gates Foundation can be a legitimate prod to bring more reality into business schools.
In the 1950s, the Ford and Carnegie Foundations studied U.S. business schools and delivered recommendations that moved business schools from being trade schools towards institutions doing business research similar to scientific research. Instead of local plant managers teaching students about operations, business schools started to emphasize research for accreditation and rankings. Warren G. Bennis and James O’Toole call it “physics envy.”
In addition to Bennis and O’Toole, other academics like Datar have questioned the direction and structure of business schools in books like “Rethinking the MBA” This should spur a debate about whether business schools have lost their way.
The Gates Foundation can make a lasting impact just like the Ford and Carnegie Foundations did by answering a simple and profound question about the right balance between research and practice in business schools. The right balance refers to adding practical reality to the intellectual airspace in business schools. It would require an understanding of the limits of theory in business. Science seeks replicable experiments. Business seeks innovations that succeed. Great scientific breakthroughs come from scientists. Great business “breakthroughs” come from the real world. Academic “research” mainly chronicles these breakthroughs.
But how much business research is enough? Do business schools need to be loaded with academic researchers? Why do they have to publish a certain number of papers in highly touted academic journals, and then do they need to be cited by others – even if there is little practical use for most of this research? This research may result in lists of “leading” academic articles and researchers within a closed circle, but how relevant are these lists in the real world? So long as MBA programs were growing as cash cows, the level of this science-aping business research was an academic issue. Now that business schools are feeling the pain, it is time to rethink business school structure, and to find the right balance between research and reality.
A disrupting force from the outside can help by questioning the current tilt towards theory, and away from reality. The Gates Foundation can be this disruptor. The article notes that the Gates Foundation wants institutions to graduate more students if they show competencies, and they are demanding maximum measurability from universities. One competency demanded by the Foundation can be the skills to start and build new businesses, and one measurement should be jobs.
With the proliferation of MBA programs, most of these graduates will never see the inside of a Fortune 500 executive suite, let along become a C-level executive. So maybe the Gates Foundation can spur these schools to develop more graduates who are trained to start and build high-growth businesses and create more jobs.
MY TAKE: Aping scientific research will increasingly lead to MBA irrelevance. I am not suggesting a move back to the days of war stories posing as business education. But the world is changing. With the increased supply of business schools, and demand showing signs of peaking, more schools will be in financial trouble. Internet education will only accelerate the trend. Business schools globally have followed the American example of more and more research. Maybe it is time for America’s business schools to develop the right balance of research and practice, and measure success in real businesses and jobs. The Gates Foundation can do this – if it wants to. I hope it does.
Source: Forbes Business
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