MT MBA & Business education guide 2007: What's wrong with business education

Management development is overrun by charlatans peddling jargon. As an antidote, colleges must offer a mix of practical relevance and rigour, says Chris Bones principal of Henley Management College.

Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Two years ago, I chose to move out of developing managers in one organisation to leading an organisation that has spent 60 years developing managers across the globe. I did this because I believe passionately that developing management capability is a key driver in the creation of wealth, and it's wealth, after all, that keeps our public services going as well as contributing to our private wellbeing.

I chose to do it at Henley Management College because I believe that most academic institutions involved in management and business education today are becoming ever less relevant to the organisations and individuals they purport to help.

Why? Because the drive to gain academic respectability for business and management studies has driven those involved into building academic careers rather than sharing insights into developing better practice in the workplace. Henry Mintzberg recently called the phenomenon 'physics envy': business school academics pursue the arcane just to achieve academic publication. For state-funded institutions, being published means points, and points bring prizes in the form of additional government funds.

This is a closed system, and although at times outcomes can escape from it and inform practice, this seems not to be the norm. To improve practice, you have to be open to it, connected to it and to address the concerns of practitioners. If most business education was exposed to the pressures of the market, it would have to change to survive. But education, like health, is one of the few sectors remaining where the producer rather than the consumer sets the agenda.

Some of my peers in university business schools might point to the virtues of academic rigour over the product-led 'research' done by consulting companies, but rigour alone is not enough. I accept that much of this research is of a questionable nature, but consulting firms are increasingly gaining the advantage over business schools because the issues they address are shared by their customers. Applying rigour to the purely academic is the way to rigor mortis.

For business education to do the necessary business, it must combine an interest in the relevant with an insistence on the rigorous. Relevance requires us to take the perspective of the practitioner - not one defined by an academic model - and it has to be delivered in a way that empathises with the challenges of management.

Management at any level, from CEO downwards, is a series of dilemmas. Dilemma is at the heart of any leadership challenge: whatever path you choose to take, there will be people who disagree and for whom it will have negative consequences. Decisions in this context are not academic exercises but complex human interactions. Understanding this is the foundation stone for successful business education.

The second necessity to understand what these dilemmas are and how they are perceived by those who face them: in my experience in business, they fall into five strategic challenges.

First, the management of reputation and relationships. Without a credible reputation, a business, public service or not-for-profit organisation will fail. Reputation is a fragile thing and it is associated with how you think through your relationships with consumers, customers, suppliers, policy-makers and those in the communities within which you operate.

Second, how you choose to lead and to change, and the impact of these choices on people and organisations. Understanding that the way in which staff are managed makes a significant difference to performance is critical.

Third, growth, innovation and an appreciation of the global, political and social environment in which we compete. Growth isn't just a private-sector concern: in the public sector, the challenge is to grow service delivery in an era of increasingly restricted resources. This is the link with innovation - design-led innovation, not just product creativity.

Fourth, implementing strategy through projects, processes and systems. In project management, we have to get to grips with the implications of the processes and technology we put in place to support them.

Finally, the dilemmas associated with knowledge management and learning. How can organisations learn and retain learning, and what enables individuals to fulfil their potential?

Few MBA programmes allow aspiring business leaders to build an appreciation of these issues, their connectivity and the critical thinking and interpersonal skills required to address them. Even fewer integrate the need for strong personal values and ethics as the underpinning for making good choices. After all, the management techniques that brought Enron to its knees were built by smart MBA graduates.

The job of a business school in preparing managers and future leaders is to ensure that they are equipped to make the right choices: for themselves, for their organisations and for the wider communities in which they operate.

Choice sits at the heart of what differentiates long-term performance. One of our founders, Viscount Hambleden (WH Smith), brought to Henley the importance of ethical leadership 60 years ago. 'Character and integrity,' he said, 'are as important in a manager as capability.' They strike me as even more relevant today.

At the end of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Albus Dumbledore says: 'It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.' JK Rowling reminds us that choice is the external demonstration of our character and our integrity. However, making good choices requires rigorous thinking, and this rigour comes from the application of sound academic principles. This is where business education makes a contribution to creating a wealthier and healthier community.

Yet as a consequence, I suspect, of the triumph of academic rigour over practitioner relevance, management development is rapidly becoming the province of the charlatan. Businesses today are faced with a cacophony of snake-oil salesmen who claim to have the answer to the dilemmas of management - and business is buying what they are selling.

A glance across the airport bookstore shelves, a Google search or a wander through Amazon reveals some amazing material for which there is no empirical justification, no sound rationale and no earthly reason for its existence. Yet it sells, and improbable propositions are being peddled - possibly in your organisation, even in your formal training and development programmes. Francis Wheen has a wonderful chapter on modern management voodoo in his book When Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World. Highlights include: The Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun; Ghandi - the Heart of an Executive; Confucius in the Board Room; If Aristotle ran General Motors; Moses CEO; and my favourite: Make it so: Management lessons from 'Star Trek the Next Generation'.

And this pseudo-education industry is populated with its own, paid tens of thousands of dollars a day to peddle the secrets of success. Let me cite one example: Stephen Covey's book Giant Steps has 365 lessons in self-mastery, of which lesson 364 is: 'Remember to expect miracles ... because you are one.'

This wisdom off the peg requires no reflection, doesn't come from experience and has no rigour. In a paper entitled On Bullshit, Harry G Frankfurt, emeritus professor of philosophy at Princeton University, says the essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phoney: it's unavoidable whenever someone is asked to talk without knowing what they are talking about.

Management is full of people who seem to be highly susceptible to bullshit, and business education has done little to take this on; if anything, it has helped turn the language of management into the newspeak of the 21st century, creating a distinctive terminology aimed at establishing business studies as a legitimate academic discipline. The result is a language constructed from jargon and cliche.

There is a difference between jargon and terminology. Terminology adds clarity, rigour and the precision of measurement; jargon is the substitution of bizarre, large and opaque words for ordinary, small and well-understood ones.

There is a role for practical and practitioner-oriented business education based on a combination of the relevant and the rigorous. Its main task should be to rid the world of platitudes, jargon and the general humbug that is now talked about management. At graduation, I urge our MBAs to stand up for what they believe in, to challenge bullshit, to apply clarity of thought, to demand rigour in analysis and to consider their choices carefully. Education is not just about skills and knowledge; it's about values, personal development and an appreciation of the wider context in which we all live.

Combining rigour and relevance in business education will deliver the development that 21st-century organisations need. As the consumer, make sure that those you work with start from your perspective and not their own.

- Chris Bones is the principal of Henley Management College.

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