Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Since McGill University professor Henry Mintzberg famously pointed out that MBA programmes were labouring under irrelevant curriculums and producing graduates well versed in theory but weak in practice, business schools around the world have been wrestling with the question of relevance.

It’s a discomfort that has intensified in the past decade in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008 and now, with the onset of the fourth industrial revolution that threatens to remake the world as we know it.

At the heart of the debate is the question of what we, as business schools, teach. The anxiety is that the theory of business does not explain or inform practice fully and to be effective in business you must be grounded in practice. Aristotle sums it up more poetically: "Nor is wisdom only concerned with universals: to be wise, one must also be familiar with the particular, since wisdom has to do with action, and the sphere of action is constituted by particulars".

How can business schools close this gap? That theory matters in any discipline is indisputable, so it is not about throwing theory out the window and glorying in practice alone. Both have their limitations. Instead, business schools have been faced with the challenge of how to move the two elements closer together so that they inform each other better and create more effective managers and leaders.

Thus, most good business schools now offer an opportunity for practical application of what students are learning; for example, through live cases or consulting assignments.

Another approach, which is fast gaining momentum, is to change scholarship practices and adjust the type of theory being taught to take more cognisance of practice.

This trend was evident at the recent Academy of Management (AoM) annual conference in Chicago. Regarded as one of the foremost events on the academic calendar, the AoM conference attracted more than 10,000 management scholars and it was striking to see that across the board there was a shift towards research informed by the observation of practice.

It’s an approach known as process theory. In its simplest form, it seeks to explain how things happen in practice. It sounds deceptively simple, and in a way it is. Process theory wants to study something in as neutral a way as possible without overlaying it with preconceived theories.

For leadership scholars, for example, this requires going beyond interviewing leaders and taking their word for things, and instead observing how they lead and do things. Actions speak louder than words.

A fundamental recognition of this approach is that we can’t predetermine what will happen.

While the tendency of theories of all kinds — and business theories in particular — is to simplify the way we see the world to help us navigate it more effectively, the reality is different. The world is complex, and trying to simplify it through theory is limiting.

Haridimos Tsoukas, of the universities of Cyprus and Warwick, argues that to survive in a complex world we have to dive right in and understand this as best we can. "To better understand the complexity of life, you need a theory that can represent that complexity. It takes richness to grasp richness."

Process theory does not try to gloss over the contradictions and complexity inherent in daily practice. Rather, it seeks to observe this and integrate it.

How does this make business schools more relevant? It means we are not giving students the comfort of a theory to take refuge in but challenging them with the reality that they need to lead and manage in a complex world. Part of this will require them to formulate their own theories of leadership and management and recognise that their journey is a becoming of self and organisation.

The first step to relevance is therefore for business schools to acknowledge that we need to produce graduates equipped to carry on learning after they leave the classroom.

Graduates should be accomplished and knowledgeable but also humble and emergent. They need to understand that even though they have a degree under their belt, they may have less agency than they would like in a complex system. To navigate this world, they need to be able to reflect on their context and who they are, in order to make sense of where they have come from and step boldly towards the future.

Luciano Zaina, an executive MBA graduate at the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business, says this is like a stick floating downstream. It might think it is in control but in reality it is dependent on the flow of water to take it where it wants to go. The pace and direction of the stream are dependent on conversations and human interactions.

There are times when the stick will get caught in an eddy or become brittle. In those instances, interventions can be useful to nudge the stick back into the current. A good leader is one that can keep things flowing positively.

Graduates must understand that we are all products of the interactions we find ourselves in. A leader with reflexive understanding is better placed to navigate this.

The evidence from the AoM conference is that business schools, far from facing irrelevance, are starting to understand this truth and are once again on the verge of restructuring. This is not the first time in the 100-plus years of business education that schools have heeded change and adapted to remain relevant. It won’t be the last.

Kosheek Sewchurran is acting director of the UCT Graduate School of Business

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