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Business Schools and business practice - partners in KM

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HandshakeTo what extent have business schools in partnership with business practice created new opportunities in management development, knowledge transfer and knowledge creation?

Change in the nature of research undertaken in business schools opens up new opportunities for collaboration between academia and practice. There is a need for more innovative forms of research engagement encouraging academic-practitioner collaboration and practice-based management development initiatives. Changes in the business school environment and context offer opportunities for new modes of knowledge exchange both in management development and research. Practice based theory offers a new paradigm of management development.

The business education landscape in context

The business education landscape is undergoing significant change as new educational technologies, a new generation of students, innovative competitors and the withdrawal of public funding create “academic capitalism”. Funding schools is a major challenge with financial performance a key consideration for academic management. Universities increasingly view business schools as generators of revenue raised through management training initiatives, new programmes and ever-increasing levels of fees. Equally, the format and delivery of business courses is evolving with the traditional university model radically altered. Demands from industry, cost and revenue pressures on third level institutes and increased competition in the education “marketplace” are leading to the emergence of practice-based learning. Though in a nascent stage, this movement exemplifies successful examples of management education programmes, programmes directed toward business development and knowledge creation with the beginnings of research rooted in practice.

Further, within this changed context, there is increasing awareness and support for the idea that knowledge transfer emanating from university business collaboration leads to economic growth, often through the commercialization of science in the form of patents, licences and university spin-outs. The UK knowledge transfer partnerships, KTP, provide opportunities for businesses to employ research students and benefit from a project-based problem solving approach bringing expertise from higher education into a commercial context with up to sixty per cent of funding available from government. Equally, the role of management education in competitiveness is espoused at supra national level (World Economic Forum, 2010) and, at national level, the UK government has addressed competitiveness concerns by a fundamental reform of education whereby the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills has become the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills.

The institutionalisation of innovation and enhancement of competitiveness

Business schools are experiencing increased demand for their services in supporting the institutionalisation of innovation and enhancement of competitiveness. Reported benefits include improved partner collaboration, intensification of international customer contact, improved productivity and market extension. Knowledge exchange between schools and businesses goes beyond mere commercial exchange and includes people-based problem solving embedded in communities. This environment creates challenges for the management of knowledge across a network as opposed to a more conventional organisation and has added impact on the management of human resources.

The current economic climate may be serendipitous in providing the business school with opportunities to rebuild confidence and exchange information with the local communities within which the school is embedded. Such activities include mentoring programmes for executives and entrepreneurs, sharing of research capabilities, association with a prestigious faculty and access to pools of talent for recruitment. However the question of whether newer forms of university, in particular the business school, can continue to deliver outcomes beyond those capable of being quantified in narrow monetary terms has been posed.

The ‘professionalization’ of management

In the midst of this change there are calls for the ‘professionalization’ of management based on design science modelled on the professions of engineering and architecture. With an argument based on the dichotomy between explanatory and design science, it has been posited that design science offers management the opportunity to move beyond understanding towards the production of a valid and reliable knowledge capable of solving practical problems.

Such research is based on pragmatic validity and contrasts with scientific validity in the positivist tradition. Pragmatic validity assesses the quality of research in practical settings seeking to reflect the complex and contextual nature of the phenomena under exploration rather than using traditional scientific method. At face value design science offers a framework for business schools to advance management development while creating knowledge that achieves validity, through new modes of research and partnerships with industry.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) provide an example within the area of human resource development. This body offers a professional qualification, a community network and a dedicated research framework. On the other hand, as a model, it lags the design science framework adopted in other professions such as law and medicine where clear career pathways with practice-based learning exist.

Challenges to a design science approach also exist from debates about the nature of knowledge and how knowing is an emergent activity unfolding over time. In particular assumptions within design science that knowledge transfer is possible and that stakeholders possess a mutual understanding of the nature of knowledge remain unaddressed. Some question design science's interpretation, arguing that it forces dichotomous thinking where none was intended. In their view design science offers less than its advocates claim though they note it provides both a focus and exposition of uncertainty useful in a time of business school change.

Change is afoot

Considerable change is afoot in business schools, the result of an altered environment and changed economic context. This alters management development stimulating new and more innovative forms of research engagement encouraging academic-practitioner collaboration and practice-based management development initiatives.

Efforts to professionalize management are, at best, in their infancy and may offer a guide towards the clarification of theoretical uncertainty rather than any prescriptive guidance. Reform of management into a professional science with a theory rooted in practice is a long-term aim with short-term goals focusing on reducing fragmentation of the management research field. However there are indicators of movement towards the professional school. The recent appointment of Nitin Nohria, an advocate of a professional model for management, to the post of dean of Harvard Business School is indicative of a growing unease with business school education.

Recently Blair Henry, the new dean of the Stern School of Business argued the need for business schools to become hubs facilitating the development of dialogue between business, government and society. In this regard, the exploration of perceptions of societal unease with business schools and their curricula and if and how this is being addressed is beginning to open up as a timely debate.

Business and academic communities should collaborate

In order to cultivate entrepreneurial knowledge, business and academic communities should collaborate to provide a practice-based perspective in leadership education and training. In the longer-term there is a need to focus attention on stimulating awareness of the relationship between management practitioners at all levels and the wider research community.

The challenge of developing relevant actionable knowledge that prepares and enthuses university students not just to observe, but to lead and drive business activity must address the academic-practitioner interface. Management education should reflect both academic and practitioner perspectives, by balancing in-class training, rooted in academic knowledge, with the experiential knowledge of business leaders and greater attention and investment needs to be made to better understand this dynamic. In terms of knowledge creation there are nascent signs of new modes of creation emanating from business school transition.

May 2011
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This is a shortened version of “The business school in transition - New opportunities in management development, knowledge transfer and knowledge creation” which originally appeared in Journal of European Industrial Training, Volume 35, Number 2, 2011.

The authors are Denis Harrington, and Arthur Kearney.