Are B-Schools Losing Their Edge?

marketing skills for the 21st century
Do B-School Provide Skills for the 21st Century

Twenty-first-century companies need 21st-century skills. But, are B-schools losing their edge in providing these skills? 

Having taught in b-schools across the country for the last 20 years, I’m amazed at how little has changed both in the curriculum of these schools and in the lack of skills training in most classes. Now, don’t get me wrong, some schools are modernizing and moving their students forward. Many focus more attention of experiential learning, which involves students applying skills to solve real-world problems. But, if I were to give b-schools a grade for teaching 21st-century skills, I would have to be a failing grade.

Well, maybe in accounting things haven’t changed much and the few things that change in GAAP (generally accepted accounting principles) quickly make it into the classroom. But, most college courses haven’t changed much in the last 20 years.

 Why are b-schools losing their edge?

There are lots of reasons for b-schools losing their edge. 

marketing in prototyping
Students doing experiential learning exercises.

First, back in the mid-’50s, studies commissioned by the Ford and Carnegie foundation found b-schools lacking. The study showed b-schools focused too much on vocational skills in courses taught by mediocre faculty. The response was to create a body of theory and focus course around that theory, which has reduced the application of theory to practice.

B-schools losing their edge has become a mantra for business-focused articles and criticism from those within the field. For instance, Warren Bennis from USC says: 

an overemphasis on the rigor and an underemphasis on relevance. “Business schools have forgotten that they are a professional school.

More recently, Harvard Business Review wrote a scathing critique of MBA programs, although their argument equally applies to undergraduate programs in my experience. B-schools are: 

failing to impart useful skills, failing to prepare leaders, failing to instill norms of ethical behavior—and even failing to lead graduates to good corporate jobs

The second problem identified by the HBR article is that most faculty members have little or no business experience. That means they have little understanding of how business work nor do know which skills it takes to run today’s business. 

crafting great brands

They blame b-schools losing their edge on a combination of schools dedicated to what they call “physics envy” resulting from the Carnegie study, which led to schools that hired and promoted faculty based on their ability to publish in A-level journals, given that much of this scientific output is trivial in impact on business. 

Why are b-schools losing their edge?

Well, now that we’ve heard from the experts, here’s my take on why business schools are losing their edge.

I would argue that we don’t need to bulldoze our b-schools, as we’ll hear recommended next. However, they do need more than a little tweaking. They need an overhaul. 

Instead of faculty who teach the same old things year upon year, faculty need to adapt to a new world by crafting a new curriculum and teaching new skills focused on applying theory to practice. 

I can really only speak to marketing since that’s my field, but most schools teach a reliable set of core classes.

  • Intro
  • Consumer Behavior
  • Market Research
  • Marketing Strategy
  • International Marketing (perhaps)
  • and maybe a little retailing, business marketing, IMC (integrated marketing communication, or product management)

Why does curriculum vary so little? Because that’s what faculty know. That’s what they were taught in grad school and that’s what they’ve taught throughout their careers. Since most faculty never really get out of their ivory towers, they don’t know what’s going on in real businesses and, since their research isn’t focused on what’s going on in business (you could NEVER get that stuff published), they don’t care.

I’ve seen faculty using videos that are still on VHS in their classrooms. Faculty teaching things that went out at the turn of the century. It’s an easy gig if all you have to do is teach from last year’s lecture notes and soon you’ve been using the same ones for 15 years.

Can we solve the b-school problem?

Martin Parker in The Guardian offers this solution: 

I have come to believe that the best solution to these problems is to shut down business schools altogether. 

Insiders call business schools: 

a cancerous machine spewing out sick and irrelevant detritus

Parker continues with his diatribe against b-schools finally recommending that all 13,000 of them should be bulldozed as there are no tweaks that will make them any better.

I won’t go so far, but b-schools need to meet today’s challenges by delivering 21st-century skills. What are those skills? I’m glad you asked. Here’s what marketing executives across industries said in a survey: 

what is marketing
Image courtesy of Digital DNA

Does this match the list of courses making up the typical b-school curriculum? 

Nope.

Are b-schools losing their edge because they aren’t teaching today’s skills? 

Yup

More important, what skills make up the top 3 business needs identified in this survey? 

  • Analytics, ie Google Analytics, SQL, Python, Big Data tools
  • Design, today’s social media requires some expertise in Adobe tools to craft images and video for posts.
  • Strategy, beyond what b-schools normally teach which involves case studies of big businesses looking for easy solutions to complex problems. 

What do you think will solve the problem of b-school relevance? 

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