Business schools do not have the best reputation these days. They’ve been accused of promoting wealth over work, selfishness over sacrifice and greed over responsibility; of turning young people’s minds and hearts into ice; of propagating ideologically inspired, amoral theories; of producing the uncritical Gordon Gekkos of the world; of being corrupt and corrupting, and ethically bankrupt. These claims make one wonder if a business school is a decent institution to study in or work at at all.
What’s more, if these accusations hold water, business schools and business education have no legitimate place either in academia or society in general.
Such strong and overly critical rhetoric inspired us to conduct a study of business students with 17 different nationalities to find out how they view themselves in today’s business world and within existing business practices.
We used vignettes: short, carefully crafted descriptions of people who represent a combination of characteristics related to business schools. We asked the students to identify themselves to a greater or lesser extent with the characters.
From this, we were able to identify whether the students view themselves as “replacers” (those who primarily view their purpose as replacing today’s managers and maintaining an organisation’s current standards), “effectiveness increasers” (managing companies more effectively than the former managers, thus contributing to the companies’ competitiveness), “pragmatic world improvers” (stressing sustainability, economic and social welfare, and justice as long as it does not interfere with the bottom line), “radical world improvers” (stressing sustainability, economic and social welfare, and justice even if it interferes with the bottom line) or “reflectionists” (those primarily concerned with critically reviewing the business perspectives and perceived wisdom, and are strong believers in free thinking and inquiry).
We were happily surprised to find that students viewed themselves as a combination of the “effectiveness increaser”, “pragmatic world improver” and “reflectionist”. The proportion of students who identified as a “replacer” was marginal.
Things became even more hopeful after we conducted a similar study among business school alumni and learned that the alumni did not view themselves as “replacers”, “effectiveness increasers” or “world improvers”, as we had expected. Rather they identified mostly as “reflectionists”, meaning they value introspection and critical re-examination of existing business practices much more highly than the skills to replicate what their predecessors have accomplished. Additionally, they approach management education in the same way that one would political science: studying it, without necessarily wishing to become a politician.
To say that we were surprised at the results we obtained is an understatement. Like many others, we had started to believe the negative rhetoric about business schools. The fact that media coverage of business is primarily concerned with business misconduct made us wonder if we embrace the negative narrative because this is what we have mostly been fed by the media.
Based on existing rhetoric and our research results, we recommend that business schools aim to provide a balanced education and recruit faculty who have a range of different perspectives, and who will teach all of the different approaches to business (illustrated by our survey vignettes), no matter which approach is their own preference.
Such education, we believe, would serve the wider moral outlook of society. Moreover, perhaps it could help legitimise once again the place of business education in the academic world. Unless this change takes place, and unless business schools promote free thinking and introspection, the degree-awarding institutions currently operating at university level risk being reduced to vocational institutions whose primary objectives are to equip students with the required toolkit for their professions.
Riina Koris is a professor at Estonian Business School and Anders Örtenblad is a professor at the University of Agder in Norway.
Print headline: More than meets the eye
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