Business schools, many think, are typical of institutions that have become firmly entrenched within their own walls. “Because you work in a university environment and you’re competing with other departments, you tend to be more theoretical and academic than we should be,” says Graeme Currie of Warwick Business School, who along with colleagues from the University of Huddersfield and King’s College London, has written a calling for business schools to collaborate more readily with their colleagues in other departments. This tendency for business professors to navel gaze has it own term: physics envy. Esoteric, self-referential research takes priority over addressing pertinent issues that were once the domain of management education, such as improving health care and dealing with the demographic and economic issues associated with an ageing world population.
(Which MBA has previously covered the parlous state of management research in modern British universities, when it obtained a suppressed report about the work of the Advanced Institute of Management Research, a body which spent the best part of £30m—$37—to try to improve research, but ended up doing very little.)
By not tackling the important issues facing the world, business schools have a legitimacy problem, Mr Currie believes. Yet even were they willing to think more broadly, the complexity of the modern world means they would not be able to solve problems alone. “Business schools on their own can’t address it, and nor arguably can any other single university department,” says Mr Currie. “What you need to do is lower your walls and work across into other departments.”
Practically, this means thinking again about the way business schools operate. Academics need to make contact with like-minded colleagues at neighbouring schools; social scientists need to communicate with hard-nosed business researchers. At an institutional level, business schools should free up money and create roles for academics who know little about management education. At Warwick, where Mr Currie works, the business school gave a clinical professor, whose research centred on care for the elderly, a part-time contract and a title involving profession in practice. He helps teach executive MBA modules alongside business and management academics.
That is important, Mr Currie believes, because “MBA students are interested in stories from the trenches”. Learning issues by rote will never stick as long in the mind as well as first-hand stories of struggles on the frontline of business (including hospitals). Though purist academics may quibble with personal description being passing off as hard data, the reality is that MBA students regularly unpack case studies and provide solutions. Simply exposing MBA students to new people and perspectives would improve everyone’s lot.