The EFMD business magazine

The EFMD business magazine

Peter McKiernan and David Wilson argue that business schools should stop copying each other and start rediscovering their diversity.

Over the last 40 years, variety in business schools has diminished considerably. Where once there stood a rich intellectual diversity, there now sits an intellectual conformity as a result of deans being seemingly content to achieve triple-accredited status and to scheme actively in the various rankings games.

Like an invisible hand, accreditation, rankings and other “institutional” pressures have squeezed the creative guts from critical aspects of the sector and left a residue of coalescence across many parts of the field. What happened?

From the late 1960s to the late 2000s, business schools appeared to be highly successful. Whether measured crudely by cash generation or by scholarliness, through the creation of a specific language, narrative and an eclectic approach to the study of management, their performance from a de novo start through a period of rapid growth seemed remarkable.

However, accusations of the complicity of business schools in the recent financial crisis led to intense criticism of them for embracing the “wrong” financial model; for straying away from the internal happenings of business organisations; and for embracing scientific rigour (“physics envy”) at the expense of business relevance.

As a result, popular cries of “moral failing” were laid at their expensive doors. Of course, business schools are not passive participants in this decline. There is evidence of recent re-invention as some make their teaching and research more applicable to wider society. Nevertheless, if more schools are to stay focused then an honest appraisal of the underlying pressures that caused this, hopefully temporary, aberration is essential.

At the root of the issue is the degree of autonomous choice that business school deans and university executives have over the trajectory of their business school and how much of that trajectory is determined by environmental forces beyond their control.

On the one hand, one can argue that executive management should have control over certain elements of curriculum design or major strategic issues. For example, if a strategy of high growth is chosen then the resultant size will determine the amount of specialisation in terms of numbers of departments, research centres, IT platforms and the expertise of faculty.

Alternatively, the choice of a low-growth strategy will lead to a school that is different in capability, structure and focus.

On the other hand, business schools and their senior executives face a range of institutional pressures that have worked singly and interactively over recent decades to restrict considerably any autonomous executive choice.


Isomorphic pressures act as a constraining process that forces one unit in a population to resemble other units that face the same set of environmental conditions. Pressures force organisations to adopt rule-like patterns of action and behaviour that become embedded in organisational structures and processes. the result is a set of homogeneous units behaving in more or less the same way. this isomorphism is a central tenet of institutional theory in sociology.

In the business school field, these pressures act over time to force schools to conform and, seemingly, look the same. there are three main isomorphic pressures: coercive, normative and mimetic.

Coercive and normative pressures

Coercive pressures are exerted on dependent organisations by regulatory agencies. this is an influential pressure because of the power differential in a relationship that creates a dependency of one body on another.

For example, business school deans talk of the “power” that accrediting bodies have in specifying tight criteria that restrict their ability to make local alterations or adjustments. Whether this power is real or perceived, it exists across the field.

As one dean expressed it: “Professional accrediting bodies constrain the curricula most. But in fostering [a culture of] standardisation, we lose judgement, variety, reactivity and innovation”.

There can be little doubt that the main accrediting bodies (AACSB, AMBA and EQUIS) provide a rigorous quality-assurance process for the stakeholders of those schools whom they accredit. But they have attracted a fair degree of criticism, not least for the way in which their accreditation badges create and perpetuate an elite of “haves” and the poor relation of “have nots” (the vast majority of business schools) leading one academic to proclaim: “aaCsB is like a group of foxes guarding the MBA hen-houses.”

For the full article, you can view the PDF.

Pressures to conform

See more articles from Vol.06 Issue 02 – ’12.

[starbox id=”Peter McKiernan,David Wilson”]

Peter McKiernan is Professor of Management in the Department of Strategy and Organisation at Strathclyde Business School.

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