Maybe B.S. Stands for Business School

Last Updated Mar 3, 2008 8:08 PM EST

M.B.A. programs in America seem to be in excellent shape -- demand is high, with more than 130,000 people shelling out tens of thousands of dollars each to get an MBA (tuition alone at Harvard Business School is $41,900 for the 2007-2008 academic year). Many graduates of the best schools never have to get their hands dirty doing actual business management -- they go to Wall Street and consulting firms and get paid to shuffle paper. So why is Strategy+Business running a lengthy and somewhat academic argument that business schools are in danger of becoming irrelevant (Lessons for Business Schools, free registration required)?

It boils down to this, says the article's writer, Andrea Gabor, a professor of business journalism at Baruch College:

"Traditional companies and business schools treat leadership, creativity and entrepreneurialism as rare attributes possessed by a talented few. Now a number of companies believe they must nurture such traits across a wide range of employees. The challenge for business schools is to understand the new structures and philosophies of these "lattice" organizations, and to train students to thrive in them."
That may be true, and it's a rousing conclusion. The problem is that she doesn't seem to support her argument very well. She spends a good deal of her essay delving into the concept of a business school. In essence, business schools have never figured out exactly what they're supposed to be, except for a brief period in the 1970s and 1980s when they coalesced around the efficient market hypothesis and agency theory (we are motivated by self-interest alone), thus allowing them to abandon the idea of training people to manage businesses. That's from the critique of Rakesh Khurana in "From Higher Aims to Hired Hands: The Social Transformation of American Business Schools and the Unfulfilled Promise of Management as a Profession," of which she is enamored, perhaps justly so (I have interviewed Khurana but not yet read his book. One-on-one, he makes an impassioned case that business schools have lost their way).

From Khurana she goes through other books, eventually winding up at her conclusion, which seems to draw largely from Gary Hamel's "The Future of Management," one of a dozen important books and articles about business and business education she discusses (see Big Think's breakdown of that book here, in Gary Hamel: Don't Be a Dinosaur).

This essay is an excellent review of some important works, but it does not show that business schools are in danger of being disregarded.

What's your view? Is she right despite not presenting the kind of evidence one might want to see?

  • Michael Fitzgerald

    Michael Fitzgerald writes about innovation and other big ideas in business for publications like the New York Times, The Economist, Fast Company, Inc. and CIO. He’s worked as a writer or editor at Red Herring, ZDNet, TechTV and Computerworld, and has received numerous awards as a writer and editor. Most recently, his piece on the hacker collective the l0pht won the 2008 award for best trade piece from the American Society of Journalists and Authors. He was also a 2007 Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science and Religion.