The bottom line is not enough: how business schools fail their students

Teaching focuses too narrowly on management techniques, says expert. Melanie Newman reports

January 7, 2010

Business schools are letting down their students and society by failing to offer a thorough critique of management and business practices, an expert in the field has warned.

Gerard Hanlon, director of the School of Business and Management at Queen Mary, University of London, said schools were producing students ill-prepared to cope with the complexity of problems they are likely to face in business - and in life.

"Business schools see the education of managers, rather than the study of management, as their key role," he told Times Higher Education. "Teaching is focused on management technique and is done on the assumption that management is an unqualified good.

"If the schools were doing their job, some academics would be questioning that. But in most places that would not be seen as a legitimate question to ask."

He drew a comparison with King's College London's department of war studies. "If that department were acting like a business school, it would take the approach that war is a good thing and that we should study war to see how we can become more effective at it," he said.

Professor Hanlon is writing a book that examines how far management theory has travelled from its philosophical roots, which are often critical of industrial life.

He cites Emile Durkheim, the French sociologist, who argued that industrialised society is morally destructive because it promotes individualism and breaks social bonds.

This theory was built on by Elton Mayo, the Australian father of HR management, who said managers should be responsible for developing social bonds, and workers who chose to bond in other ways should be seen as obstructive.

Professor Hanlon said: "Durkheim says that industrialisation is to blame for people's problems. Mayo subverts this, and says that the business, through the managers, is the solution and the people are the problem."

Business schools also tend to take the latter attitude to environmentalism, he warned.

"Environmentalists are seen as a problem, to which management can find a solution by changing business practices. The other argument - that business is a big part of the problem because it encourages consumption - is never heard."

Fifteen years ago, business students would have been exposed to such arguments as the business school's staff would be drawn from many disciplines, Professor Hanlon explained. "Now business is generating its own professoriate, which is much narrower in terms of its focus and academic mission."

Teaching is often "umbilically" attached to textbooks, which give the impression that knowledge of personality types and economic techniques will provide the answer to any management dilemma, he said.

He added that most of his students aspire to be chief executives of major corporations. "But if you're a senior manager at Royal Dutch Shell you're going to have to deal with geopolitics, terrorism and environmental protesters - and textbook management techniques aren't going to help much."


Business schools have been told that they must overhaul their MBA programmes to focus on sustainability and ethics, or risk losing their accreditation.

The warning from the Association of MBAs follows research by Durham Business School that suggests that the curriculum must change to ensure that the qualification remains credible in the wake of the financial crisis.

In the past 18 months, the qualification's reputation has suffered, while the number of alternative specialist masters in subjects such as financial mathematics has grown.

The research, which surveyed 100 business schools and 544 alumni worldwide, recommends that business schools improve the breadth and depth of their curriculum. It states that ethics, sustainability and risk management should be key features of MBA courses.

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