Rethinking Business Schools After the Fall

Blame the business schools? As the culprits roll out of the fancy offices in New York and Washington, it’s hard to resist the temptation. There have been several thoughtful pieces on that in the last couple months, particularly the New York Times on blaming the business schools, and Are Business Schools to Blame posted late last month on a Harvard Business School blog. If you care about business education, for whatever reason, read both of these. The first is a bit longer than most blog posts, but thorough, well researched, and significant. The second includes a long string of thoughtful comments.

I care about business education. I think there are serious issues here, and a chance, maybe, to use this crisis to promote some change for the better.

The Times’ piece raises serious issues:

Critics of business education have many complaints. Some say the schools have become too scientific, too detached from real-world issues. Others say students are taught to come up with hasty solutions to complicated problems. Another group contends that schools give students a limited and distorted view of their role — that they graduate with a focus on maximizing shareholder value and only a limited understanding of ethical and social considerations essential to business leadership.

The Harvard follow-up cites three underlying problems (and I’m paraphrasing, here; the words are mine, summarizing):

  1. The traditional business school curriculum separates management from leadership. Management is analytical. Leadership is fuzzy.
  2. Business school lore and legend is about making money. Get an MBA, get rich.
  3. Business schools aren’t owning up to the possibility. The actual phrase is “There has been little contrition on the part of those involved in MBA education after the crisis.” Hard to argue with that. At least Harvard is there.

I see a whole lot of truth in most of this. And I believe in education in general, and I loved the two years I took to get the Stanford MBA, and I wouldn’t change a thing about that time (from 1979 to 1981). I teach one class a year at the University of Oregon business school. So I am involved in all this. And I do think there’s room for a lot more change. And good and bad news.

The Bad News

So much of what they’re saying is, at least from my point of view, mostly true.

Business schools tend to train people to be consultants and middle managers. In my class at Stanford we almost all wanted to be management consultants. Those were the best jobs. From what I can tell, that’s still true, and at all the good schools.

That idea of minding the stockholders interests, blindly, is very deeply rooted. It’s a very powerful rationalization. “Oh well,” they say, as they make the short-sighted, environmentally insensitive, socially insensitive, and even borderline unethical decision, “our job is to mind the share price.”

And the share price, meanwhile, drives very short-term views. The share price doesn’t often reward the strategic decision that sacrifices short term bumps for long-term health.

Business ethics are too often an afterthought. They should be at the core of business strategy, wound in and absorbed in product and market strategy, but they aren’t. They’re separate.

The Good News

The good news is the tremendous boom in teaching about entrepreneurship. It’s the absolute rage in business schools. Entrepreneurship programs are the bright new thing everywhere.

When I was at Stanford, there was only one course on anything related to small business or entrepreneurship. It was called Small Business Management, taught by Steve Brandt. It was a really good review of the startup process, the business plan, and getting investment. It was my favorite course. But it was also the only one offered that had anything to do with entrepreneurship. Today Stanford has a booming center for entrepreneurship and some amazing activities related to entrepreneurship: speaker series, videos, and so on.

And that’s the rule, not the exception.

Furthermore, people inside the schools are waking up to the growth in green business, social entrepreneurship, sustainability, and so on. I was at MERC 2009 the week before last: put on by the George Mason University Entrepreneurship Center, focusing on sustainability. The University of Oregon business school has a program on (a center focusing on) sustainable business. There too, that’s the rule, not the exception.

And a Hope for the Future

Maybe it’s still just a pipe dream, an ex-hippy delusion left over from the 1960s, but it seems to me that changes in the business landscape — increasing visibility, for example, in an explosion of small-scale quasi-journalism in blogs and social media — make it steadily more important than long-term successful business has to respect the fundamental values of fairness to employees and customers, sustainability in resources and the environment, and better citizenship in a very broad sense.

The world is revising the golden rule: do unto others as you would have posted and tweeted everywhere, and lodged in Web searches forever. I think that’s a good thing.

Maybe in the future the businesses will actually do well by doing good.

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