Pressures to Conform

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    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.

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