what b-schools are for


Teppo brought to our attention a debate on the Bizdeans blog about the purpose of b-schools. The issue is whether b-schools have become irrelevant to practitioners because the professors are more concerned with academic prestige than with practical application. After reading the exchanges between Paul Danos (Dartmouth), Richard Schmalensee (Sloan/MIT) and Santiago Iniguez (Instituto de Empresa) , I had the following thoughts:

  • It’s not enough to point out that MBA salaries are high. We all know the difference between treatment and selection effects. The MBA might be acting as a signal. Students may get little out of econometrics and game theory, but if they can master the skill, then they have shown the intelligence that leading firms require. Unless b-schools are satisfied with the possibility that they simply might be a high priced IQ test, one needs to ask how the skills of the faculty (academic research) can be brought for the benefit of students and society.
  • As many folks point out, this is a never ending concern. Before the 1950s, b-schools were not seen in a terribly good light. Spurred by a 1955 Ford Foundation report on management education, b-schools reformed by emphasizing basic research and ditching vocational courses. We are probably now at the tail end of the “new b-school” era. After years of building b-school faculties that rival their social science counterparts, people want to know what the pay off is for industry.
  • The new b-school thus veered from the vocational model to the liberal arts model.  In the vocational model, you do a lot of case studies and learn about the nitty gritty of businesses. Early b-schools were not that far removed from vocational colleges. Now the model is different. Business students learn basic social science, which is supposed to teach critical thinking skills and scientific literacy.  Much like liberal arts colleges create good citizens, the MBA is supposed to create literate and enlightened business leaders.
  • Why do b-schools have to choose between these two modes (vocational & liberal arts)? I don’t think any business school dean would say that it’s a good idea to skip statistical or economic literacy, or that students shouldn’t be exposed to economics or psychology at a more advanced level. But deans fairly ask about practical application. As a graduate program, the MBA is supposed to be beyond the general education of the bachelor’s degree and it is not preparation for the doctoral degree. Thus, why can’t we expect practical application from the b-school?
  • Suggested solution: The medical school model – divide the business curriculum into 1 year of basical social science and 1 year of *required* field work, with electives. This is what medical schools do – they do two years of anatomy & biochemistry, followed by two years of *required* rotations with electives. Why should b-schools be any different? One leading b-school boasts that “50 percent”of MBA students work in the field. This is actually bad. Would you trust a medical school where only 50% of the students had worked on a real patient before graduation? Why not require it?
  • “Reforming” the faculty: Santiago Iniguez wrote that changing the academic orientation of b-school faculties would be hard. Yes, but the medical school faculty offers a plausible model for a more practical b-school faculty. If you required *all* students to do field work, then you would need to hire people who actually had real experience and could help develop academic work that linked practice and basic social science. You would still have lots of basic social science, but these people would only be expected to provide half the education. The clinicians – who would need strong links to the academy – would do the other half.

Is the medical school model such a big jump? Not really. Most b-schools already have many clinical faculty already and offer field work opportunities. Also, the university itself could be the “patient” that b-school students treat. Why not have students evaluate the effectiveness of recruiting undergraduate applicants? Or fund raising efforts? Or the cafeteria? The university could also invite established companies, or other organizations, to submit applications for free consulting on certain policies. The medical school model might not be the way to go, but it does offer a starting point for thinking about bridging the gap between high powered basic science and every day management.

Written by fabiorojas

November 29, 2006 at 8:01 pm

Posted in education, fabio

8 Responses

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  1. […] Fabio Rojas at suggests that business schools require more field work. You wouldn’t trust a doctor who graduated from medical school without working on a real patient, so why hire an MBA student who hasn’t performed any “rotations,” in companies or in the business school itself? […]


  2. Fabio:

    A couple brief observations:
    – you are suggesting “real” work experience – most MBA programs require a good 3-5 years of real experience, so the students come in with the experience (in medical school students are generally going straight through)
    – related to this point – rather than having my students traveling around the world on field studies (getting more experience), which many of them do [one student of mine could have legitimately missed 1/3 of my Org Theory class with various field studies (Brazil, Japan etc), well that combined with all the interviewing (fly-backs) they do] – I would rather have them learn theory, critical thinking etc. Both obviously are valuable, but, these students came back to school to, well, to go to school (rather than “get experience” and travel, though it obviously has its place)
    – there is an unhealthy war-story mentality that many “clinical” faculty have [with a biased N=1 (usually how they got rich) – you can tell all kinds of fun stories (which generally result in high evaluations which in the case of clinical folks does not always equal learning) – but that scarcely is scientific (well, unless we simply call what they do performativity – then I guess it should work and become “true.”)
    – sure, clinical faculty certainly have their place, but I would not move toward increasing the war story-to-theory ratio at b-schools; in many cases its already too high. Grounding good theoretical thinking in stories – which obviously can be more effective than just stating the theoretical or empirical facts – of course works, its just when we get into unbridled “this is how I did it”-mode then problems result
    -at medical school even the clinical faculty have a reasonably well-established and common foundation of theory and evidence that they have to draw on – this is not the case for mgt folks as there is much more variance and less unanimity in terms of what the foundation should be
    – all the above said, there of course are brilliant clinical faculty teaching at b-schools around the world (who try to be informed about theory and its links to practice)

    Hmm, more later – need to pull my stories together for tomorrow’s class.



    November 30, 2006 at 7:51 am

  3. First, let me qualify this statement by recognizing that I’ve never taught in a b-school and I’ve never even taken a b-school class. My thoughts about b-schools are based entirely in conversations I’ve had with people who do teach there.

    My outsider impression is that the main problem with b-schools is a mismatch between the kind of talent that they recruit to be on their faculty and the kind of teaching required in the classroom. A significant majority of b-school profs are esteemed social scientists who publish in academic journals. They’re main qualifications are as psychologists, economists, sociologists, or some multidisciplinary variety of the three. Yet, in the classroom their expertise is disregarded because students expect to learn practical stuff – ironically, from people who have done very little practice.

    I’m not making the argument, however, that b-schools should have fewer social scientists and more clinicians. As Teppo points out, many of the former exec. adjuncts base their lectures on an N of 1, without a greater understanding of the dynamics of industry and firm contexts. My solution would be to have less clinical training and treat the degree more as an advanced social science degree for someone who will work in the business world. Rather than have expert social scientists teach stuff with which they have little familiarity, let them teach what they know in the classes. Make the MBAs do research, learn analytical reasoning and scientific methods, and debate philosophy. Sure, this would mean that the degree is still a signal (although a more valuable one), but at least the students would be given a more complex understanding of the social and economic underpinnings of their business world. They wouldn’t necessarily leave with more managerial skills, but they would leave with a wealth of knowledge and analytic skills that would make them better thinkers. Seems like we need more of that in the business world anyway.



    November 30, 2006 at 3:33 pm

  4. […] On Organizations and Markets Peter Klein asks, should business schools should be like medical schools? Fabio Rojas on suggest using the medical school as a model. He is right, but let us take it a step further. Medical schools have teaching hospitals. Let us have teaching companies in business schools. There are already student run coops and newspapers in many universities. […]


  5. […] while ago, we asked: what are b-schools for? We covered discussions by various b-school deans. One of those deans, Santiago Iniguez of the IE […]


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