What Do Business Schools Do?


business schoolBusiness schools have been around for the last 50 years based, initially, on the idea that they are like the older Education, Law or Medical Schools (and don’t forget Theological Colleges historically prior to any of these). Just as they provide the basis for the development of professional practice in their areas, the Business School provides the basis for such practice in business. With the benefit of hindsight this seems like a preposterous analogy:

  • First, the professions noted above have their own clear community of practice.
  • Second, responsibility and accountability are at the heart of these communities, expressed in systems of self-regulation, and the imperative to maintain ‘standards’.
  • Third, the professional development of members is focused in actual practice.
  • Fourth, the worth/purpose of that practice is enshrined in the vision and values of the community.

If business schools are operating on this basis then we have a counterfeit operation; by which I mean it involves imitation, without the authentic meaning or practice of a profession. Hence, the work of Khurana (2010) and others is trying to prod us into some kind of professional thinking. Part of this debate ask questions about identity and community, which are too big for this blog. Part of debate is about the pedagogical purpose and practice of business schools. Are we developing professionals? If so, does our teaching and learning reflect professional meaning and practice, narrowly (for instance in the accountancy profession) or broadly?

In this blog I want to suggest that business schools can make a contribution to this issue by focusing, at least, on how staff and students think. The capacity to think, on your feet, in a conversation, whilst being eyeballed by the boss, faced by an audience, and so on, strikes me as being central to the professional life. It is about deliberation, making a choice, but is actually much more than ‘working through’ the decision making process.

decision makingI am not at all sure that there is such a thing as an objective framework for decision making. Even when you reach ‘stage two’, and begin to ‘analyse’ stakeholders, objectivity is soon lost, especially if the CEO of one of them is your wife’s cousin, or you have ‘previous’ with one of them, or if your boss has said he wants the stakeholders ‘managed’ by next Tuesday. Nothing happens in a power, relational, meaning, or value vacuum.  And how you handle those feelings and ideas determines how you see the world and respond to the complex environment. Thinking is always messy, and needs engagement.

So, for instance, how does a doctor practice care? She does so by ensuring that she has the epistemic distance between herself and the client (Robinson 2008). There are two extremes to that focus. On one wing is the sympathy for a patient which cares too much, and so loses sight of what’s afoot, or any other part of the anatomy. On the other wing is ‘scientific objectivity’, which sees the patient only as a medical problem, the patient as it were becomes the foot in bed three. Middle of the road is empathy, involving care and distance. This is a virtue which is central to professional practice. To practice, this virtue needs to be worked at and worked at, in all kinds of situations, so that when you are faced by a patient, with your daughter waiting outside in the car park, desperate to get to the school where she has a starring role in the play, you remain focused, your observation and judgement is not affected. This might just be the man who collapsedeciison making 2s in the high street.

It is exactly the same for a manager… the need to be conscious of the different narratives at play in the mind and around. The need think through the implications of any action. The need to stay focused on purpose. Robert Chia’s session with the Centre (see April 22 blog) noted the way in which modern management techniques try to squeeze out thinking, ‘Stay focused on the targets’. But the evidence suggests that this doesn’t work. By focusing on the target we lose sight of whatever else is going on. This means losing sight of both wider purpose and vision and the competing narratives. Chia argues that we need to remain focused on our core purpose and the excellence associated with that, not on success. The success will follow.

In the next blog I will look more closely at what is involved in this thinking.

Dr. Simon Robinson, Director of the Centre for Governance, Leadership and Global Responsibility

R. Khurana (2010) From Higher Aims to Hired Hands (Princeton: Princeton University Press).

Robinson, S. (2008) Spirituality, Ethics and Care (London: Jessica Kinsley).


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