Theory or Practice? —What is the point of research carried out by biz schools?
Students go to universities and other academic institutions to prepare for their future. We pay tuition and struggle through classes in the hopes that we can find a fulfilling and exciting career. But the choice of your university has a large influence on your future. How can you know which university will prepare you the best for your future? Like other academic institutions, business schools are judged by the quality of the research carried out by their faculties. Professors must both teach students and also produce original research in their own field. The quality of this research is assessed by academic publications. At the same time, universities have another responsibility to equip their students for the real world, however that is defined. Most students learning from professors will not go into academics themselves—so how do academics best prepare them for their future careers, whatever that may be? Whether academic research actually produces anything that is useful to the practice of business, or even whether it is its job to do so, are questions that can provoke vigorous arguments on campus.
The debate, which first flared during the 1950s, was reignited in August, when AACSB International, the most widely recognised global accrediting agency for business schools, announced it would consider changing the way it evaluates research. The news followed rather damning criticism in 2002 from Jeffrey Pfefler, a Stanford professor, and Christina Fong of Washington University, which questioned whether business education in its current guise was sustainable. The study found that traditional modes of academia were not adequately preparing students for the kind of careers they faced in current times. The most controversial recommendation in AACSB’s draft report (which was sent round to administrators for their comment) is that the schools should be required to demonstrate the value of their faculties’ research not simply by listing its citations in journals, but by demonstrating the impact it has in the professional world. New qualifiers, such as average incomes, student placement in top firms and business collaborations would now be considered just as important as academic publications.
AACSB justifies its stance by saying that it wants schools and faculty to play to their strengths, whether they be in pedagogy, in the research of practical applications, or in scholarly endeavor. Traditionally, universities operate in a pyramid structure. Everyone enters and stays in an attempt to be successful in their academic field. A psychology professor must publish competitive research in the top neuroscience journals. A Cultural Studies professor must send graduate students on new field research expeditions to be taken seriously. This research is the core of a university’s output. And research of any kind is expensive—AACSB points out that business schools in America alone spend more than $320m a year on it. So it seems legitimate to ask for,'what purpose it is undertaken?
If a school chose to specialise in professional outputs rather than academic outputs, it could use such a large sum of money and redirect it into more fruitful programs. For example, if a business school wanted a larger presence of employees at top financial firms, this money may be better spent on a career center which focuses on building the skills of students, rather than paying for more high-level research to be done through the effort of faculty. A change in evaluation could also open the door to inviting more professionals from different fields to teach as adjuncts. Students could take accredited courses from people who are currently working in their dream field. The AACSB insists that universities answer the question as to why research is the most critical component of traditional education.
On one level, the question is simple to answer. Research in business schools, as anywhere else, is about expanding the boundaries of knowledge; it thrives on answering unasked questions. Surely this pursuit of knowledge is still important to the university system. Our society progresses because we learn how to do things in new ways, a process which depends heavily on research and academics. But one cannot ignore the other obvious practical uses of research publications. Research is also about cementing schools’ and professors' reputations. Schools gain kudos from their faculties’ record of publication: which journals publish them, and how often. In some cases, such as with government-funded schools in Britain, it can affect how much money they receive. For professors, the mantra is often "publish or perish”. Their careers depend on being seen in the right journals.
But at a certain point, one has to wonder whether this research is being done for the benefit of the university or for the students the university aims to teach. Greater publications will attract greater funding, which will in turn be spent on better publications. Students seeking to enter professions out of academia find this cycle frustrating, and often see their professors as being part of the "Ivory Tower” of academia, operating in a self-contained community that has little influence on the outside world.
The research is almost universally unread by real-world managers. Part of the trouble is that the journals labour under a similar ethos. They publish more than 20,000 articles each year. Most of the research is highly quantitative, hypothesis-driven and esoteric. As a result, it is almost universally unread by real-world managers. Much of the research criticises other published research. A paper in a 2006 issue of Strategy & Leadership commented that "research is not designed with managers’ needs in mind, nor is it communicated in the journals they read. For the most part, it has become a self-referential closed system irrelevant to corporate performance." The AACSB demands that this segregation must change for the future of higher education. If students must invest thousands of dollars for an education as part of their career path, the academics which serve the students should be more fully incorporated into the professional world. This means that universities must focus on other strengths outside of research, such as professional networks, technology skills, and connections with top business firms around the world. Though many universities resisted the report, today’s world continues to change. The universities which prepare students for our changing future have little choice but to change with new trends and new standards.