John Quelch on business schools

John Quelch, senior associate Dean at HBS and former dean of the London Business School, has an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required) called A New Agenda for Business Schools. In it, he describes an evolution in business schools that is all too recognizeable:

To meet expanding student demand, many business schools had to hire Ph.D.’s in disciplines such as economics or psychology with little interest or experience in administration, management, or leadership. Determined to command the respect of their peers in the faculty of arts and scienses, most of those specialists engage in narrow research that has little or no relevance to or impact on practicing managers, and they seek to publish in journals with the word "science" in the title.

The ensuing lack of interest in teaching and business contact has an effect:

The bright, enthusiastic students who clamor for admission are not being well served, and they know it. They pick up a credential but invariably learn little about how to analyze and solve the complex, messy probelms that confront today’s business managers and leaders as they seek to navigate the global economy.

Quelch argues that what is needed is not the either-or of soft vs. hard or empirical vs. clinical research. What is needed is a balance, especially within broad themes of leadership, ethics, global thinking, management skills, and technological innovation. Currently, the faculty is fragmented :

[…] with their narrow functional expertise, most business-school professors can offer only the individual building blocks. Students are therefore left to integrate what the faculty cannot.

Quelch argues for broad-based capstone courses and field projects to integrate these specialities. He also want business schools to practice the leadership they preach within a the larger university community, especially since they (at least in the USA) are better financed than most other parts of the university and can spread some of the wealth around.

I find little to disagree on in this article, though I recognize the argument as somewhat Harvard-centric, in the sense that many other business schools are either independent of a university or more loosely connected to than what is the case in the top-tier US schools. I agree wholeheartedly in his observation that the pendulum has swung too far over towards specialty and rigor, particularly in Europe, and that it is time to pipe up for the messy realities of imprecise observations, equivocal data, and conflicting priorities and motivations. A good manager is comfortable with ambiguity and change – that should go for business school professors as well.