Rigor? or Relevance? …in your MBA

This is a thorny issue, so, let's tackle it head-on. In a spirit of full disclosure, I have a double stake on this theme, because I earned an MBA and I have been teaching in various MBA programs for some time. I am interested in your reactions and your experiences; as I stated in last month's column, please contact me via email, regular mail, or any way you want! (My email to keep track of this column is: drolivaslujan@gmail.com or you may post comments directly below.) The basic topic this month is: Have you found rigor or relevance in your MBA studies? Let me explain what I mean.

A debate that has been running among academic circles for at least some sixty years is whether Business Schools should be rigorous or relevant. You may have read periodicals like The Economist, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and other publications dedicated to practicing managers adding to the debate at times, bringing scathing criticism to the work that is being done in many business schools around the nation.

Herbert Simon, 1978 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences wrote about business education in the 1950s that it was "a wasteland of vocationalism that needed to be transformed into science-based professionalism." He was advocating the use of scientific methods in business, steering business schools away from the "apprenticeship" or "commerce school" models that used to train office managers, private accountants, administrative assistants and salespeople before business schools became prevalent at the university level. Seeking rigor in their work, academicians were successful in bringing ideas and methods from the "basic" sciences like Psychology, Economics, Social Psychology, Sociology, even Anthropology, History and some Natural Sciences into business schools.

However, many suggest that they went too far in making business schools "rigorous" and scientific, to the point of irrelevance! Most of the research reports that appear in the most prestigious journals are considered unreadable, inappropriate, esoteric, or downright useless by the managers that have to make daily decisions to compete in our business environment. The questions addressed by such articles, the techniques used and their writing style is sometimes seen as “pontificating” or of no consequence for the manager needs advice on a given area such as what is the best way to dismiss an employee or salvage a deteriorating work relationship.

In 1994, Donald Hambrick, President of the Academy of Management –arguably the most influential association of Management researchers in the world—lamented the lack of relevance of the association. Since that time, several of his successors have followed suit, expressing their disappointment with the research that many business schools produce and the lack of professionalism of many of their graduates.

I am sure you have read relatively recent articles in the popular press that not only echo these thoughts, but even blame (at least partially) business schools for the lack of ethical training demonstrated by managers at Enron, Tyco, Adelphia, Parmalat, and others like these. Without entering the debate on business ethics at this time (Let’s talk about… that sometime in the future, shall we?), I would like to ask you to reflect on those MBA classes you are taking (or took sometime ago) and write your thoughts on any of the following ideas (or at least think about them):

  • What type(s) of rigor do you see in your MBA classes? How do you recognize it? Is it in the application of the scientific method? In the use of theories, algorithms, systematic procedures, models, statistics, etc.? Something else?
  • Have you found relevance in the lectures, exercises, projects, presentations, papers, and so on? If so, how? Where and when have you been able to apply what you learned during your MBA?
  • What would be your suggestions to improve the status quo? Does this debate resonate with your feelings and experiences?
  • If you have been so lucky to find rigor and relevance in your MBA (or at least one of the two), please let me know!

Excluding the possibility that I receive a deluge of responses, I will be happy to include your name and institution in a future column. Also, if you are interested in the bibliography I used in preparation for this month’s column, don’t hesitate to contact me. I look forward to reading your thoughts!