Out of practice, if not out of pocket

From Higher Aims to Hired Hands
November 2, 2007

The author of this book is a Harvard Business School professor who argues in the publicity material that "business schools have largely capitulated in the battle for professionalism and have become merely purveyors of a product, the MBA, with students treated as consumers. Professional and moral ideals that once animated and inspired business schools have been conquered by a perspective that managers are merely agents of shareholders, beholden only to the cause of profits". This is the essence of the argument that the author carefully and thoughtfully develops throughout the book, which is an extremely powerful indictment of a global institution, the US business school, responsible for training not only Americans but also many of the world's leading business leaders.

The book is extremely well written and provides a detailed historical account of US business education from the 1880s to the present day. It is divided into three parts. In the first, the author explores the "professionalisation" project in American business education from 1881 to 1941. This section is comprised of four chapters, aptly titled "An occupation in search of legitimacy", "Ideas of order - science, the professions and the university in the late 19th and 20th century America", "The invention of the university-based business school" and "The very ill- defined institution: the business school as aspiring professional school".

Basically, this part of the book highlights the fact that American business schools were created to be "professional schools", dedicated to a deeper understanding of management, management processes and organisational behaviour. This professional orientation was to enable business schools to have an impact on society and business rather than to be focused exclusively on the "bottom line". The author quotes C. P. Biddle, who was at Harvard in the 1920s and wrote in justification of business being taught in universities: "If its purpose is to train 'hands', or technicians, or merely successful money-makers, in my judgement the course has no place in a graduate department of a university. On the other hand, if its purpose is to train 'heads' or future leaders in business it has no difficulty in justifying its existence or place."

Part two of this book highlights the institutionalisation of business schools from 1941 to 1970, with chapters on "The changing institutional field in the postwar era" and "Disciplining the business school faculty: the impact of the Foundations". Many US business schools received substantial funding from a number of business entrepreneurs and companies through their foundations, such as Carnegie and Ford. This helped them develop the academic disciplines but, the author argues, may have taken them away from the "practice of business".

In the UK, the Foundation of Management Education was instrumental in creating the London and Manchester business schools, but after that injection there has been very little backing from industry or business in terms of supporting business schools for the challenges of the 21st century and global competitiveness.

The final part of the book is entitled "The triumph of the market and the abandonment of the professionalisation project, 1970 to the present". This section contains two chapters on the "Unintended consequences: the post- Ford business school and the fall of managerialism" and "Business schools in the marketplace". The author then concludes with an epilogue, emphasising his contention that business schools should not only be about nurturing wealth creators but also about the ideals of professionalism and creating business leaders for the future.

This text will help many of us in business schools to think about who we are and where we need to go in future. Rakesh Khurana has done a great service to management education with this scholarly and important book.

Cary L. Cooper is professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University Management School, founding president of the British Academy of Management and co-editor of the recent book Inspiring Leaders (Routledge).

From Higher Aims to Hired Hands: The Social Transformation of American Business Schools and the Unfulfilled Promises of Management as a Profession

Author - Rakesh Khurana
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Pages - 542
Price - £19.95
ISBN - 9780691120201

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