A challenge to the specialization inherent in a PhD is that problems in business often do not have solutions that can be drawn from a single field
A professor in a B-school has two kinds of tasks to perform: To create enough mental models among the students that help them make sense of the business world and be in a position to anticipate what will change in the environment. If they wish to be entrepreneurs, what students learn in a B-school should give them the ability to be more successful than someone who does not have that education.
At their inception, B-schools represented a breakthrough in preparing managers, a process which had long been captive to the uncertainties of what was, for all intents and purposes, managerial preparation through apprenticeship. Without B-schools, managers were expected to move directly, and gracefully, from whatever role they had excelled in, to management. Some firms still expect this, but most now, thanks to business schools, recognize management as a profession with its own lessons and approaches, and that the variances associated with apprenticeships of any sort are no longer necessary.
There is nothing more practical than a good theory. Peter Drucker’s theories and ideas are still current even though Drucker passed away almost a decade back. The academics have to create frameworks that explain what puzzles the practitioner and allow them to generalize that lesson and pass it on to others. Drucker remains the gold standard of how an academic can inspire the business leader.
Supply versus demand
For one, there aren’t enough PhDs available. According to the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, many senior faculty are retiring or will soon retire, there is a significant increase in the number of students seeking degrees in business (a trend likely to continue), and last, an insufficient number of students enroll in and complete doctoral business programs. It is not surprising that all global rankings of B-schools are affected when it comes to percentage of faculty who possess a PhD.
But some B-schools have made a virtue out of not having enough PhDs. They claim not to burden the students with academic mumbo-jumbo. The faculty is drawn from practitioners. So “it is all practical”. That assumes that practitioners who teach have the ability to distill insights that can be effective even when applied to an organization or industry very different from theirs.
Is having a PhD a pre-requisite for being a good teacher?
It is a great indicator of the person’s ability to explore previously unexplored gaps in knowledge or perhaps to even question what has been conventional wisdom. The ability to teach has little to do with the skills that researchers develop. Each one of us can identify professors who have written marvelous books and published papers in prestigious journals and yet in a classroom they are ineffective. The best players have not become the best coaches.
The legendary basketball player Michael Jordan never experienced success as a coach. As the USA Today said, “Respect and credibility are built over time, with one's career a compilation of the good, the bad and — as had been the case in Jordan's post-playing life as an owner and executive – the ugly.”
Professors need to be skilled in instructional design while engaging students. They need to get the students to learn about frameworks that are general enough to explain events across different industries. They need to know various approaches to pedagogy that will generate a love for the subject. Does having a PhD guarantee any of the above? Probably not.
Perhaps teaching in a B-school has analogies in the way classical music is taught by the gurus to their disciples. The guru will demonstrate the notes and then deconstruct the framework of the raga and the nuances that are specific to the gharana. Once the disciple has learned the raga adequately, she can improvise at will. When the guru notices the disciple’s ability to teach others, he confers the title of “Ustad” or “Pandit” on the erstwhile disciple and a new maestro is born. Could that be the way we teach management?
It is a “qualified no”
Bill Fischer is Professor at IMD and Co-director of IMD/MIT-Sloan Driving Strategic Innovation and a former B-school president. He is a guru in the field of innovation, a blogger for Forbes and the author of The Idea Hunter. I ask him if having a PhD is necessary. Fischer responds with a “qualified no”. It is a surrogate that helps in the hiring process:
- A B-school needs to hire the most competent people even though they might not have anyone on the faculty who is in a position to make that judgment. So, they rely on surrogates: Do the individuals have PhDs? Have they published in respected journals?
- Having a PhD serves as an assurance that the holder has been exposed to research methodology and can contribute new “objective” insights.
- This is a push towards “professionalization” within a larger academic community quite like what has happened in other applied fields, such as engineering, medicine and journalism.
It is not the degree that matters by itself but what it represents — critical thinking, familiarity with generalizable frameworks, a sense of “where the field of study is” that the teacher needs to have.
Is there a different way to learn to manage?
Should management be taught in the way a surgeon is taught surgery, where there are often many PhDs involved? Or the way a pilot is taught how to fly an aircraft, where PhDs are rarely seen? Besides, having a PhD is no surrogate for the professor’s ability to communicate, engage the students and stoke their curiosity.
One challenge to the specialization inherent in a PhD is that problems in business often do not have solutions that can be drawn from a single field. Implementing a new sales incentive system needs to be understood for its financial impact and has to be communicated to the employees effectively. That may need the HR person to work with the finance department, the communication expert and the marketing team to be successful. Most B-schools are still organized around silos — marketing, finance, HR and communication — which are more reflective of the PhD education process than they are of the integrative needs of a real business.
General and yet specific
Content that is taught in a B-school is now available freely on the Net. The role of a professor is less about content transfer and more about making the practitioner curious enough to see patterns among events. So the practitioner has to go beyond her experience and match it with academic research to see how the specific event can be the base for a general model or framework. But then how many practicing managers have time to read and reflect?
It is all about the rankings
Economists are fond of using the phrase “ceteris paribus” (other things being equal) to explain economic forces. The common man does not have the luxury of keeping the rest of the world static and then watch how two variables will affect the economic forces. Academics have to be able to take general frameworks and theories and make them actionable in the specific scenarios that managers face.
Until that happens, I guess we should follow Prof Fischer’s advice: “My sense is that a balanced portfolio of skills would be best — but then the B-school rankings would punish us!”