Business School Academia and the Craft Guild

Business schools are strange places to work. They are part of universities but it certainly seems like they never totally belong. Other academics (indeed a fair number of business academics), rightly or wrongly, may see business as not a worthy subject of research. Apparently, this might have been fair. Business schools traditionally lacked the intellectual rigor of many parts of the university. This has largely changed as business academics have taken the best ideas from other parts of the university to gain respectability. Despite the obvious benefits of embracing the best methods we have certainly risked losing connections to the outside world. Many academics are now so specialized it is not clear that they have anything to say to anyone who is not an academic.

Edward Miles analyses the history of the business school to explain such successes and failures. He notes that academia is like a craft guild, with apprentices (phd Students), journeymen (untenured professors) and master s (tenured professors). The tenured decide what is good with little reference to external standards. Those below the master level have little incentive to do anything but what the masters think is good. The guild itself judges the success of the more junior members and so success depends upon conforming to the guild (academic norms) rather than the whims of any employer. It has notable benefits but also makes faculty almost impossible to manage. A dean might encourage research with external relevance or effective teaching but the incentives that can be offered pale compared to the rewards offered by colleagues. “In short, business school faculty members have no incentive to conduct research that is of interest to practitioners or is written in a manner accessible to them.” (Miles, 2016, page 73).

A dean will then set up a portfolio of staff. Many of whom have lower status than the “masters” and so are reliant on the dean. We might expect to see increasing isolation of the tenure track staff.  A school needs a certain amount of them but they may become closer to a family’s best silver, it looks great to have them but they aren’t really useful for anything.

Many organizations have a tendency to become insular but there are concerns that business schools might be more vulnerable to insularity than many others. Miles suggest that other professional schools (e.g., journalism and law) have clearer constituencies and more unified ideas of what is correct in the field. Schools can be admonished by the professional groups they train people to join. If a law school produces graduates who can’t pass bar exams there is an obvious problem. The business school faces fewer direct pressures as the discipline of business is less well structured. This means “Business school faculties have a buffer larger than journalism schools and law schools from potential criticism emanating from the inevitable misaligned interests…” (Miles, 2016, page 146). Basically the nature of business schools means that, perhaps surprising, we have more leeway to veer away from reality.

The future of the business school is an interesting thing to think about. It is a really hard place to get right, but I’m confident we can do a little better.

Read: Edward W. Miles (2016) The Past, Present, and Future of the Business School, Palgrave MacMillan