Well, another business academic has joined the “something’s funky about business schools” club. This time it is Michael Watkins, a Harvard Business School professor who was recently denied tenure and is now musing about how HBS is failing its students and its mission.
I can see Watkins’ point. If you scan his CV, it is suitably ample and right in line with the sort of thing that has gotten people tenure at Harvard in the not-too-distant past. (I don’t mean to suggest anything untoward about Harvard; it’s just that historically Harvard Business School has been more tolerant of academics who published in less typically academic outlets.) This is a borderline case, at worst, and certainly not an outright rejection.
Nevertheless, here, in his words, is Watkins’ epiphany:
I think my case raises some issues about the future of HBS and of business schools in general. In particular, I have been wondering for some time:
- To what extent are business schools producing insights of use to practicing managers?
- Is the investment that they are making in research justified in terms of results?
- Is the HBS brand at risk?
I believe that the answers to these questions are, respectively, little, no, and very much so. I further believe that this is the result of the “capture” of business schools (including unfortunately and increasingly HBS) by discipline-oriented academics who consume more value from their institutions than they create for them.
He calls the latter group parasites, and I don’t disagree with Watkins’ characterization. More broadly, however, it is interesting how many business academics have been slow to realize what is happening inside their own institutions: economics-envy has taken hold. Business schools have, of course, been heading down the self-refuting path of rigor over relevance since at least the Ford Foundation’s “new look” report of the 1950s. Sadly, Watkin’s tale shows that things are demonstrably getting sillier, not more sane.
There is, of course, a bright side. The market works, even for storied business schools. Annoy enough customers by having mufti economists teach too much sterile twaddle at $33,650 per year and you too can mess up a wildly profitable business.