Some business school’s managers –most, I hope- think that an important part of their institution’s mission is to bridge the business world and academia. Some others –few, I believe- emphasize that business schools are academic institutions and they should search their own identity, separated from the business world. In this and subsequent posts I will refer to the first conception as the “attached approach” and to the second as the “detached approach”. They both describe two alternative, though very generically described, views about the nature and mission of business schools that require further explanation and I will use some examples to illustrate them.
Let me refer to a case of the detached conception by recalling an inspiring and quite recent anecdote when I interviewed a candidate for my school’s faculty. I asked this person for the content and purpose of his research, and at some stage he explained that he was looking forward to teaching at executive programmes because it would provide the opportunity to check if the findings of his research fitted the real business world. I tried not to overreact to his words –my friends say I am too diplomatic- but I can tell that I was very surprised. Could you imagine a scientist whose research was on elephant family habits saying that he would like to watch real elephants in order to test the accuracy of his theories? Are some PhD programmes in management stressing the detached approach too much?
The academic world has always experienced a tension between Theory and Practice, in management as well as in other disciplines. This tension has sometimes resulted in the creation of an abyss between both spheres, characterised as the “ivory tower syndrome”, a phenomenon that, paradoxically, some academics take great delight in. A curious antecedent of this syndrome was when the abbots of Middle Age monasteries, which were the embryo of later universities, prescribed the principle “ora et labora” (pray and work) after their monks were spending too much time in church and abandoning their responsibilities in the orchard or the library.
Immanuel Kant, one of my favourite philosophers, dealt with this question in his opuscule “Theory and Practice”, a must reading for academics, where one of his aims is to overcome the gap between speculative thinking and practical decisions. One of the conclusions of his work is that when theories can not be applied to practice they are just bad theories. For those who seek a further analysis I recommend an essay by Jeffrie G. Murphy.
Another example of the detached approach is the comment posted by Teppo Felin (of orgtheory.net fame) in this same blog, if interpreted in an extreme way, i.e., that academics from a different discipline to management are better candidates for teaching than experienced executives. I agree with Teppof that we should fish beyond management faculties -in areas such as sociology, psychology and social sciences in general- in order to enrich our programmes, as I defended in a previous comment, but I also believe that those practitioners that undergo the necessary preparation for teaching are at least as good potential docents as academics.