Ashoak Upadhyay

B-schools don't live up to hype

Ashoak Upadhyay | Updated on May 12, 2011 Published on May 08, 2011

Management schools are driven by only one agenda — placements

The poor quality of academic research in management schools is the outcome of a similar decline within the university system. The current economic crisis underscores the disconnect between such research and corporate realities.

In an assessment of research capabilities in business schools in India, two professors from the London Business School, Nirmalya Kumar and Phanish Puranam, found poor representation of Indian business schools in the 40 peer-reviewed journals that the Financial Times uses to rank research in MBA schools worldwide.

Covering two decades to 2009, the study shows just a handful of faculty from some IIMs and IITs having contributed papers to such journals. The authors suggest that while case papers are valuable as pedagogic tools they do not provide “cutting edge knowledge”

ACADEMIC RIGOUR

This knowledge, according to them, comes from academic research that is “double-blind peer reviewed (that is, the authors and reviewer do not know each other's identities)” with “high standards of proof”. The emphasis is on “rigour” as against practitioner-oriented research with immediate ‘relevance' and lower standards of proof.

Kumar and Puranam make a case for academic management research as the hallmark of superior management schools. They vouch for theoretical practice, dismissing the popular notion that it is of scant applicability to “real life”. They offer three reasons why such research constitutes the “backbone” that “supports the pedagogical mission”. The first is the introduction into the real world of concepts such as ‘core competence' that strategists and financiers cannot do without today; alternatively, such scholarship debunks the corporate world's “best practices”, for instance, by showing poor returns for investors from acquisitions. The second is the value it contributes to teaching consulting and “writing for practitioners”. And the third, the value it adds to the institution's efforts at attracting the best faculty.

RESEARCH AND REALITY

All this sounds perfectly reasonable on first consideration. Separate its constituents and the case isn't so convincing. The authors pose advantages of research for three target groups: The corporate world itself, the faculty that broadens its knowledge frontiers (and, of course, fattens its purse through consulting) and the student as the beneficiaries of enhanced pedagogy.

Anyone remotely acquainted with the current economic crisis would know how little management research (and, in the bargain, its practitioner) influences the world of financiers and corporate strategists.

Ramalinga Raju's Satyam's board of directors had leading management professors from Ivy League business schools: Mangala Srinivasan from University of California, Berkeley, Krishna Palepu from Harvard Business School, not to forget R. Ramamohan Rao, dean of Indian School of Business; none of them could prevent the promoter from hijacking the blue-chip IT company. And, if further proof were needed of the value of ‘rigorous' or ‘relevant' research on real practices, one need only remember Enron, QualComm and other frauds by American firms, both on Main Street and Wall Street over the last two decades. Is it any wonder, then, that the pioneer of modern management research, Peter Drucker, who was more a philosopher than a post-Tom Peters type management pundit, wryly observed that the appendage “guru” was popular only because “charlatan” was too long to fit in a headline.

The events of corporate malfeasance in the latter half of the 20{+t}{+h} century and in these times, not just in America but almost all over the world, spell the limits of the utility of management research as expressed so breathlessly by the two authors.

More ominously, the capacity of big corporations to define rules and set standards of corporate behaviour that are often at odds with public interest, demonstrates their underlying and unstated hegemony over business schools too.

Given the interface between management-school research and corporate practice “in real life”, the best that business schools can do is to get jobs for students who pay through their nose for the courses.

Viewed against the primary aim of imparting a value-loaded degree, the authors' claim for research and publications by faculty members has merit. Double peer-reviewed publications on issues relating to management theory and practice would improve the quality of the pedagogy and its recipients.

When Kumar and Puranam find the state of research in Indian B-schools scanty at best, they expose the absence of an essential ingredient in most business schools. At the very least, a faculty that engages in research beyond the case study sends its students into the world with the valuable gifts of abstraction and inquiry.



DRIVEN BY ONE AGENDA



What explains this poor representation of Indian B-schools in the corpus of global management theoretical practice? The more obvious answer is that management schools are driven by one agenda only — placements.

Indian firms do not tire of complaining about the shortage of managerial talent. As if in answer to this oft-stated gap between demand and supply, a rash of management schools has spread, some in the most unlikely places, including regions with few industries such as the North-Eastern States that want their own IIMs. To date, there are some 1,600 management schools and while there is no way of finding out if all their graduates get jobs, the lure of a business school binds both the promoter and the student. Landowners turned politicians turn again into founders of business schools, all with one aim: Increasing student enrolment.

B-schools in India are meant to be degree shops; in most rankings and in the popular imagination, “placements” determine quality. As degree shops, they are no different from the general university that has, over the decades, shed its research faculties to become an assembly-line producer of degrees.

The poor quality of academic research in B-schools is the outcome of a general and systemic decline of research within the university system.

Published on May 08, 2011
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