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Bennis, W. G. and J. O'Toole. 2005. How business schools lost their way: Too focused on "scientific" research, business schools are hiring professors with limited real-world experience and graduating students who are ill equipped to wrangle with complex, unquantifiable issues - in other words, the stuff of management. Harvard Business Review (May): 96-104.

Summary by James R. Martin, Ph.D., CMA
Professor Emeritus, University of South Florida

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Bennis and O'Toole begin by saying that business schools are on the wrong track and the problem can be traced to a shift in their culture. Leading business schools have adopted an inappropriate model of academic excellence. They began to measure themselves against the rigor of their scientific research rather than the competence of their graduates and how well their faculties understand the drivers of business performance. This new model of science is focused on abstract financial and economic analysis, statistical methods, and laboratory psychology. Business schools' adoption of the scientific model is based on the faulty assumption that business is an academic discipline like geology, or chemistry. However, business is a profession, like law or medicine, and business schools are professional schools.

Business schools have a joint mission to educate practitioners, and to create knowledge through research. Prior to around 1960 business schools had a trade school focus where the emphasis was on educating practitioners. After 1960 the emphasis shifted to scientific research. The authors are not recommending a return to a trade school model, but believe a new balance is needed between scientific rigor and practical relevance.

The Scientific Model

An underlying assumption of the scientific model (as applied in fields such as physics and economics) is that the university exists primarily to support scientists who push back the boundaries of knowledge. Providing any practical implications of their research is not part of the scientific model. This is quite different from the model used in schools of medicine and law where faculty members practice as well as teach. Business school professors using the scientific approach start with a set of data to test a hypothesis using statistical methods, or set up simulations for a laboratory experiment. They publish articles on narrow subjects that have little if any interest to business practitioners. This is in spite of the fact that many, if not most practical business problems cannot be solved with statistical analysis or a scientific experiment. Business researchers often ignore many of the factors that make the difference between good business decisions and bad ones on the grounds that they cannot be measured, e.g., factors related to judgment, ethics, and morality. A business schools over emphasis on the scientific model essentially institutionalizes their own irrelevance.

Who Gets Tenure

Business school faculty are evaluated primarily on the basis of the number of articles published in A-level academic journals. "Today, it is possible to find tenured professors of management who have never set foot inside a real business, except as customers." To get the picture, imagine a professor of surgery who has never seen a patient.

What Gets Taught

According to Bennis and O'Toole the best classroom experiences involve analyzing cases with hidden strategic, economic, competitive, human, and political complexities. But today the trend is away from using cases and many universities are hiring adjunct professors to teach MBA courses. Business school professors know more about academic publishing than about actual business problems, and they tend to teach what they know. Integrating what they are taught with business practice is left to the student.

Regaining Relevance

To regain their relevance business schools must recognize that business management is not a scientific discipline, but a profession. Professions have several elements: an accepted body of knowledge, a system for certifying individuals who have mastered that body of knowledge, a commitment to the public good, an enforceable code of ethics, and a focus on integrating knowledge and practice. Business schools must use one or more methods to rediscover the practice of business, e.g., running businesses, offering internships, encouraging action research, consulting, etc. The authors are not advocating a return to a trade school model. They recognize that business research needs to be rigorous, but argue that it also needs to be relevant.

The Professional Model

Business schools should look at the professional schools in medicine, dentistry and law for guidance. For example, law schools tend to reward teaching excellence and pragmatic writing. Although scientific publications are valued, most of the research is applied and its validity is not measured by the scientific model. In the professional research model, questions related to the relevance of the work are more appropriate than scientific rigor. Questions such as: Is the research important, useful, well thought out, well argued, and well designed? Some universities do attempt to combine rigor with relevance. Harvard Business School is mentioned as an example where case studies are still emphasized.

Looking Ahead

The problem addressed in this article is not that business schools have embraced the scientific model. The problem is that they have abandoned other types of research and other forms of developing knowledge. What is needed is a rebalancing of the business school model that includes a diverse faculty who have the broad interest and research skills required to cover the broad and deep territory of business itself.

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Some other articles critical of an over emphasis on the scientific model or that recommend practice oriented research.

Eastman, D. R. 2002. What higher education is for. St. Petersburg Times (September 14): 19A. (Note).

Grasso, L. 2008. The accounting Ph.D. shortage: Crisis or opportunity? Cost Management (March/April): 15-25. (Note).

Hopwood, A. G. 2008. Management accounting research in a changing world. Journal of Management Accounting Research (20): 3-13. (Summary).

Kaplan, R. S. 1983. Measuring manufacturing performance: A new challenge for managerial accounting research. The Accounting Review (October): 686-705. (JSTOR link). (Summary).

Kaplan, R. S. 1993. Research opportunities in management accounting. Journal of Management Accounting Research (5): 1-14. (Summary).

Kaplan, R. S. 1998. Innovation action research: Creating new management theory and practice. Journal of Management Accounting Research (10): 89-118. (Summary).

Martin, J. R. Not dated. Notes to those considering an Accounting Ph.D. Management And Accounting Web.  http://maaw.info/ArticleSummaries/NotesforAccountingPhDStudents.htm

Martin, J. R. Not dated. The accounting doctoral shortage and opportunities to teach accounting. Management And Accounting Web. http://maaw.info/ArticleSummaries/ArtSumAccountingDoctoralShortage.htm

McNair, C. J. and B. Richards. 2008. Unintended consequences: Death of the teacher-scholar. Cost Management (January/February): 21-28. (Summary).