Warren Bennis thinks we should be worried about the current direction of business schools, where many of those doing the teaching have never set foot inside a real business except as a customer. I'm sorry to report that he's right.
Tenured professors in business schools largely appear to be studying business the way an entomologist studies bugs -- for the sake of the study alone, and not to improve the lives of the bugs.
A visit to the PhD recruiters: who is finding our future teachers and researchers?
I attended a recent information session for aspiring PhD students (I confess to harboring notions of this kind) where we could talk to representatives of a dozen or so major business schools, including notables such as Harvard, McGill, Kellogg, Rotman, Ross and others.
Although the average age was about 38, or perhaps older, most of the speakers talked as if we were all just embarking on a career, and deigned to offer patronizing advice such as "be nice to other people". Asked directly by one audience member if his experience as a C level executive in a major business was considered a desirable asset, I was as shocked as he was to learn that the answer to this question is "no". (One of the panelists actually used the phrase "golden years" to describe a graduate student in their forties.)
Academic Life is Competitive: You're Kidding!
Amazingly, several representatives suggested that mid-career individuals NOT sign up for a PhD because academic life is "very competitive". I've got a news bulletin for them: life as a practicing manager is competitive, and in the executive ranks it's winner-take-all. I'd be amazed if a 28 year old graduate student could outthink, outsmart or outlast a seasoned executive on anything other than the ability to pull all night writing sessions or put up with BS.
I stopped by a few recruiting booths where I thought saner heads might prevail. Michigan's Ross School, home of the pragmatic Positive Organizational Scholarship knowledge centre. Surely McGill, home of the brilliant and practical Henry Mintzberg, author of Managers, Not MBAs, would be more interested in experienced managers that are interested in pursuing scholarship and teaching? Their recruiters were spouting the same lines about it being very difficult for "older people", and that experience is much less important than GRE or GMAT scores.
Focusing on Academic Research
At Rotman's booth, one of the 3rd year PhD students told me her research was about consumer behavior. (What could be more practical than that?) I told her how inspired I have been by the work of Daniel Kahneman, whose research has enlightened my consulting work. Whereupon she told me that her research would probably not be useful to people working in a major brand consultancy, and it was likely that "they wouldn't even understand it".
As Mr. Bennis and co-author James O'Toole note in the HBR article (reference below),
Some of what is published in A-list journals is excellent, imaginative, and valuable. But much is not. A renowned CEO doubtless speaks for many when he labels academic publishing a "vast wasteland" from the point of view of business practitioners. In fact, relevance is often systematically expunged from these journals.
Bennis believes that business schools are being criticized for
failing to impart useful skills, prepare leaders, instill norms of ethical behavior, and even lead graduates to good corporate jobs... Instead of measuring themselves in terms of the competence of their graduates, or by how well their faculty members understand important drivers of business performance, they assess themselves almost solely by the rigor of their scientific research. This scientific model is predicated on the faulty assumption that business is an academic discipline like chemistry or geology when, in fact, business is a profession and business schools are professional schools--or should be.
So What -- Where's the Connection to Customer Experience?
Just this -- if we hope to improve customer experience, we need managers that can think in a nuanced way about real life situations.
And if you happen to hold one of these business degrees, if this trend continues you can expect to see the brand value of your degree plummet.
And one more thing -- what about distance learning?
I spoke to an interesting gentleman at the end of the session, the unofficial representative of distance learning school Athabasca. He thinks it is completely antediluvian that anyone should be asked to uproot their family, abandon their business and live on the $20K a year that a PhD business student can expect while they pursue full time studies on-site.
I could only agree.