Business schools need to improve interdisciplinary communication to make the MBA relevant

WUSTL professor examines how history can help innovate business education

The debate over the relevance and future prospects of business schools is not new. The same issues have existed since the beginning of formal business education in the late 1800s. The current state of the debate, fueled by declining MBA applications and high profile legal cases involving MBA-trained executives, has proceeded in ignorance of this history, according to Bill Bottom, the Joyce and Howard Wood Distinguished Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Olin School of Business at Washington University in St. Louis.

Corporations enjoy cross-curricular classes at the Olin School of Business' Knight Center for Executive Education.
Corporations enjoy cross-curricular classes at the Olin School of Business’ Knight Center for Executive Education.

The marriage of research and social science with business education really began in earnest in the 1920s. When viewed with this long-term perspective, the research based-approach to business education has been incredibly fruitful. Bottom said. They yielded new approaches to organization, leadership, marketing, and managing risk while insuring that these new methods would be quickly disseminated to a wide range of practitioners. At its best, Bottom said, this has always been a genuine collaboration between practitioners and academics. Due to a lack of historical perspective, however, there is a tendency to misunderstand the partnership and to take its accomplishments for granted.

“From the beginning there was concern that professors would develop narrow research within disciplinary specialties,” Bottom said. “There was a general fear that the demands of research would lead to greater and greater specialization and researchers would lose sight of the interconnection between disciplines. They’d be unable to speak to a practical business audience about the problems they confront and they’d be unable to provide practical, meaningful solutions to problems.”

Unfortunately, those fears have been realized in many business schools. As a result, both the academic and corporate worlds have been questioning whether or not business schools can provide useful skills, prepare leaders, instill ethical behavior and help graduates find good corporate jobs. In an article in the May 2005 edition of the Harvard Business Review, Warren Bennis and James O’Toole criticized business schools for being too research oriented in a field that is distinctly practical and non-academic.

There is a fundamental irony in the current debate, Bottom said. On the one hand, business school research has, over time, led to significant innovations in practice — most notably in the efficacy of cross-functional teams as tools for organizational structure. Yet even as the research pointed the way for this kind of practical exercise, the institutions neglected to see that those very practices could be applied to business schools as well.

“Businesses have taken advantage of these innovations, but the typical business school has not,” Bottoms said. “Business research itself has grown increasingly specialized and the opportunities for interdisciplinary collaborations have become more difficult.”

William Bottom
William Bottom

The solution is not to abandon the cross-curricular partnership between social science and business education. It is to ensure that business schools practice the same kind of silo-busting research and teaching that we long ago advocated to managers with great success, Bottom said.

“If researchers have a difficult time communicating with each other across their boundaries, then it must be that much harder for students to understand how to put these pieces together when separate people are teaching things in separate bundles,” Bottom said.

In general, the pendulum is swinging away from narrow research as more business schools see the benefits of approaching issues with a multi-disciplinary perspective. Bottom said this change will keep business schools relevant, although he acknowledges that the value of an MBA might not have the same widespread value it used to have.

“I think there was a boom in the market that attracted a lot of people who probably shouldn’t have been thinking about an MBA in the first place,” Bottom said. “They just did it to follow the herd and that ended up disappointing a lot of people. So maybe the standard MBA won’t be as broadly subscribed to as it was in the past and the mix of people who find it useful and of interest will shift.”

However, there are other sorts of opportunities to make business education relevant and invaluable. Bottom said, undergraduate education and innovative executive education programs can be better tailored to serve the learning needs for many of these individuals. The best of these programs will continue to be based on a partnership between social science and business practitioners.