It was nearly a decade ago that Carol Stephenson, then dean of the Ivey school at Western University in Canada, told me of her befuddlement when it came to the loyalties of scholars. Joining a business school following a very successful corporate career, she assumed that the allegiances of professors would be similar to those of executives in the business world.

How wrong she was. A professor’s first loyalty was to the faculty members with whom they conducted research, regardless of institution, she explained. Their second attachment was to their students and their third to the other academics at the institution. Loyalty to the business school itself came at the bottom of the list.

© Nick Lowndes

As business schools go, Ivey is one that works more closely with business and is arguably less likely to follow this agenda than most. Nonetheless, what has always struck me is the extent to which business schools, which spend their time — and make their money — advising companies and individuals on how to build successful institutions, actually take so little of their own advice.

“Build a strong corporate brand,” say business professors, who then charge corporations large sums to help instil brand loyalty into their executives and create effective cross-cultural teams. But do they do the same themselves? No.

This is just one example of where business schools preach what they fail to practise. Further instances are legion.

Take addressing customer needs, for example. This is always high on the teaching schedule, but if there has been one consistent message from recruiters and corporations in the past decade, it is that MBA graduates are, effectively, not fit for purpose. Executives need more communications and problem-solving skills, says MBA recruiters. Then we will teach them yet more finance skills, comes the scholarly response.

Ask any professor teaching on a two-year MBA why the degree needs to be so long and the response is always the same: because it takes two years to teach students what we need to teach them. But what about how much recruiters think they need to know?

What is clear with a one-year MBA programme such as that taught at Insead — which this year has become the first one-year MBA to top the FT rankings — is that recruiters are as happy to take students from there as from any of the best two-year programmes.

Even with executive short courses, there are still many professors who are happy to teach what they know, but not what their customers need to know.

Of course, so-called “change management” is one of the hottest topics on the executive agenda and professors are eager to help out. But business schools themselves have barely changed in a century. Even as professors lecture on the increased pace of change, they seem largely oblivious to it.

Then there is international expansion, high on the agenda for many large corporations and a topic on which professors are expert in advising companies, often through teaching well-researched case studies. But do it themselves? With just a handful of exceptions — Chicago Booth and Insead spring to mind — the answer, again, is a resounding no.

Students and course participants come to us, rather than us going to them, has been the elitist response of many business schools.

Perhaps the most important topic for MBA students today is entrepreneurship and creating new business opportunities. I rest my case. With the exception of a brief period more than a decade ago when Duke University proved particularly entrepreneurial and created both the first Global Executive MBA and Duke Corporate Education, the customised training business, schools’ entrepreneurial flair has been notable by its absence.

The topic I find particularly unsettling is employment and human resources. As tenured professors enjoy jobs for life, it seems disingenuous for them to advise corporations on reducing headcount or extracting more from the workforce. But you have to ask whether, in fact, the ends justify the means. After all, the biggest lesson corporations need business professors to teach them is how to survive and prosper in a fast-moving, ever-changing environment. Most businesses eventually fail at this. Business schools, it seems, rarely do.

The top US business schools were created more than a century ago and the top European ones more than 50 years ago. They may not have changed much in that time, but at least they are still there. It is very hard to think of any corporations of the same age who have been so successful while adapting so little. Business schools are the great survivors. Perhaps they are on to something after all.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article