Voices of experience

In a chilly economic climate, business schools' ability to deliver research with real-world relevance is essential. Tracey Hudson asks whether they can find the right academics to deliver those goals

July 15, 2010

One of the biggest challenges faced by higher education institutions around the globe is the continuing shortage not of academics, but of the right kind of academics. And nowhere is the challenge greater than in one of the fastest-growing areas of the academic world - the international business school community.

According to Paul Danos, dean of the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, "there is a continuing shortage of PhD-trained professors, which is causing cost escalation for the very best".

"Because of this shortage, many business schools are adopting a model of education that de-emphasises the role of research professors and substitutes others who are not primarily researcher-teachers. Until PhD programmes increase in number and output, this worldwide trend will continue," he says.

So is this shift in focus undermining the quality of teaching delivered by many institutions? And can they afford not to produce the high level of research normally associated with the products of the doctoral pipeline?

Mauro Guillen, director of the Lauder Institute at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, says he believes that shutting down the flow of research is simply not a viable option - and he is willing to back his opinion with hard cash.

"We're not just in the business of educating those on campus, but also in the business of creating knowledge, participating in public debate and contributing to public policy," he says.

"To do this, we have to invest heavily in original research. If you add up the cost of faculty time, of research assistants and administrative staff, of producing and purchasing data and surveys and the expenses involved with publication, you'll find that somewhere between one-third and half of our total budget is directly related to research activity."

Guillen's emphasis on the importance of original research is echoed by Jennifer George, dean of the Melbourne Business School in Australia.

"Employing a theoretical approach isn't just a luxury that PhD students can afford to indulge in; it can actually help to change the way that individuals think and enhance their capacity to analyse situations and to deal with new problems, new challenges and new ideas.

"Of course, the business school experience is about the passing on of knowledge, but we can't hope to teach what the world will look like in 10, 20 or 30 years," she continues.

"What we should be giving our students is the capacity to cope in the future by constantly pushing their intellectual abilities. Without research, we're into the territory of 'try it and hope it works', which is certainly not what our students want or expect from us."

Although no one in the business school community has yet ventured to question the intrinsic value of academic research, Philippe Haspeslagh, dean of the Vlerick Leuven Gent Management School in Belgium, believes that such research must remain firmly connected to the day-to-day needs of working businesses to justify the investment it requires.

He concedes that the notion of abandoning pure academic research is an impossible one, as it would alienate a sizeable proportion of academic staff and also jeopardise a school's position in some of the major business education rankings.

However, Haspeslagh does argue for the necessity of bridging the gap between blue-skies research and its more applied, practical equivalent. He is attempting to do this at his own institution by ensuring that staff work closely with the school's corporate partners, thereby helping to keep research rooted in the demands of the everyday.

The European School of Management and Technology (ESMT) in Germany takes a similar approach. Luc Wathieu, associate dean of faculty, points out that the institution doesn't just work with companies, but was founded by a consortium of the country's biggest corporate players, including Allianz, BMW and Lufthansa.

"Researchers who focus on real-life issues bridge the gap between theory and practice. With the network of founding companies behind us, we're able to offer a lot of opportunities for field-based research that feed into this," says Wathieu.

Mark Taylor, the new dean of Warwick Business School, is no ivory-tower academic, having spent the four years prior to his appointment at Warwick as managing director of BlackRock, the world's largest asset manager. In his view, the distinction between academic and practical research is somewhat artificial.

"People often seem to think that to be relevant to business you have to water down its academic worth. Well, you don't. Practical thinking and abstract thinking are both essential. Indeed, in a business school context, the notion of a divide between practice and theory is a false dichotomy. Theory and practice are not opposites but complements."

For Taylor, good business school research brings creative thinking to bear on carefully amassed evidence to provide outputs that influence the world.

"This does not mean that all research has to have an immediate application," he says. "But it must in some way improve our understanding of the world and in principle be capable of application. At WBS, we allow thought leaders and experts to be independent and to take the long view, with enough space and time to collaborate with their peers and to network across boundaries. The long-term benefits will thereby follow."

The solutions to the debate about what sort of research should be focused on at business schools and to the perennial shortage of high-quality academic staff may lie in a reform of the doctoral system itself.

At present, the system still concentrates on developing individuals who may have little or no real experience of the world they are destined to teach students about. The result can be the creation of academics more focused on publishing their work in high-impact journals than in solving the problems of hard-pressed commercial managers.

Perhaps what the PhD pipeline needs is a greater number of more mature doctoral candidates, who have come to the process after front-line experience in the business world.

Joseph Li Puma is one such academic. He is now a professor at the EM Lyon Business School in France and head of its international MBA programme, but he was a technology consultant for more than 20 years before undertaking a doctorate in business administration.

"The fact that I worked so long on the other side of the fence gives me a particular type of credibility with students," he says. "I'm not just teaching how to do things; I've done them myself.

"However, a background like mine is still seen as unconventional. I'm heavily involved in research work alongside teaching and the management of the MBA programme, but I'm always conscious of making my research as relevant as possible to the day-to-day business world."

The question, of course, is how many schools are ready and willing to embrace this new generation of academics.

"When I was looking for my current post, it was obvious that there were schools out there that didn't know what to make of my background. I don't think that there was any coincidence in the fact that EM Lyon focuses specifically on the development of entrepreneurs, so my hands-on experience fitted exactly with their approach," Li Puma says.

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