The right stuff

Prof. Amir M. Sharif, Acting Head of Brunel Business School, discusses the edge of the management education envelope

In a 2005 article in the online version of Harvard Business Review, Professor’s Bennis and O’Toole suggested that business schools were in danger of losing their way through a lack of rigor and relevance in delivering management education. Whether it is better for business schools to be professionally focussed “trade schools” or theoretically-proficient academes of knowledge was not necessarily their point. The concerns raised by Bennis and O’Toole about what gets taught in business schools was more about what doesn’t get taught or practiced and indeed what knowledge is not provided.

So what should business schools be teaching – and what aspects of business should rigour and relevance be applied to? This, I believe, lies at the heart of the debate and deserves an acronym (what else would do?) that forms the foundation of business, employer and societal needs: TABLE.

Firstly, all students need to be taught about the appropriate business uses of technology. Every facet of life and indeed every business, is underpinned by information technology and information systems. It is clear from working with university applicants over the last few years that most school leavers have an immense amount of technical knowledge before they enter higher education (whether it is social media talent, multimedia talent, configuring a Wi-Fi router at home or otherwise).

Secondly, given the dearth of technology and data it is vital that business degree students at all levels be comfortable with analysing information. This does not necessarily mean students must be excellent at maths (though not a bad thing) or even maths-minded. But they do need to gain the capabilities and skills to ask analytical questions: namely, to explore and identify relationships, linkages and themes of ideas that are hidden in organisational and everyday occurrences. 

Thirdly, there is a growing interest that is unlikely to go away, in terms of human behaviour as it relates to business. Understanding the psychology of the market, of the customer, of the firm or even of your fellow employees is vital to the two proceeding elements above. This is where there is the greatest opportunity to make management education relevant and rigorous. By combining real life examples of the best cases we know about (ourselves) with the insight that scientific analysis can provide (psychology for example), we have an opportunity to impart working knowledge of the self to our students.

Fourthly, we have to arm students with the ability to become lifelong learners. Although it is a truism that a student is a learner, we also know that successful organisations and individuals adapt to their circumstances through learning. Again several years ago, I was reminded by an eminent colleague from the LSE that universities are very good at imparting knowledge, but can be found wanting in ensuring that students become capable learners. Learning requires reflection, and in short, we need to question whether or not we allow our students to self-assess and reflect upon their management education learning experiences (inside or outside the classroom) enough.

Finally, students need to be taught about the rigour behind experience-based products and services. Almost every business nowadays is driven by not only the product or service being provided but increasingly, how it makes us feel and how we experience it. The best example is probably iTunes and other internet eco-systems where there is a confluence of art, science and technology.

So whilst we may not be able to impart the perfect balance of Bennis and O’Toole were seeking, we should at least be able to point to the “legs” of the “TABLE” above and impart knowledge about the elements which might lead to successful rigour and relevance within management education.

(The views and opinions expressed are personal and that of the author and are not those of Brunel University)

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