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Involving business in management education

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By Margaret Adolphus

Management education should be at least partly about educating future or, in the case of executive education, current managers. In order to do this, business schools need to form close links with business, and most stress their links with the business community and claim to offer their students "real world" in addition to academic learning.

In this article, we look at some of the ways in which business schools involve real world business in management education, and at the theoretical underpinning behind practical education. Most schools spend much time trying to woo the lucrative executive education market, providing bespoke education for the business community. Here we concentrate mainly on management education for those that do not yet have jobs in business.

Management: art or science?

Management is a messy business, dealing with day-to-day problems with incomplete information in an often unpredictable world. Historically, however, business schools have been criticized because they stress too much the functional side of business and equip future managers with tools rather than experience (Armstrong, 2007). Management tends to be taught in "functional silos" as separate disciplines – accounting, human resources, marketing, operations management, etc. This does not reflect a real world situation where there is likely to be integration, or at least close cooperation, between the various functions.

This approach goes back to attempts to "professionalize" management education in the late 1950s, when reports from the Carnegie Corporation and the Ford Foundation encouraged this disciplinary breakdown and a scientific approach (Mintzberg, 2004, quoted in Armstrong, 2007). The scientific paradigm is still very influential and is reflected in the positivist, quantitative approach of much management research, particularly that published in American scholarly journals.

Many authors, however, have called for a more practice-centred approach. You do not learn to be a manager simply by acquiring tools, but from experience. Learning happens by situational application: the Dreyfus brothers argue that the difference between the expert and novice is "situational discrimination", in other words, sound judgement honed by experience of applying learning to life and seeing how knowledge, "theoretical" and otherwise, needs to be adapted to different circumstances (Dreyfus and Dreyfus, 2005, quoted in Fenton-O'Creevy and Knight, 2007). Similar ideas are put forward by Lave and Wenger (1991, quoted by Armstrong, 2007) – situated learning, where learning happens through everyday work tasks and through interaction with peers, which they term "community of practice".

All this means that management is as much about skill as it is about knowledge, an art as much as a science:

"managers cannot be created in the classroom because effective managing happens when art (emphasizing insight), science (emphasizing analysis) and craft (emphasizing experience) meet" (Mintzberg, 2004, quoted in Armstrong, 2007).

Experience-based learning

If management needs to be about experience as well as facts, how do you teach experience? A few business school faculty may be experienced managers, but most are currently practising academics, although with strong past and present links to the world of commerce. The challenge, according to Fenton-O’Creevy and Knight (2006), is to construct learning environments which teach students what they (the educators) do not know. In other words, they must create the opportunities for students to explore, experience and reflect, and build up their own body of knowledge which is wider, more personal and more practical than that which can exist in any textbook or academic institution.

There are a number of terms used to describe this type of learning: practice-centred approach, experiential learning, action learning. There are also a number of applications, which can take place both inside the classroom (e.g. case studies, simulations) and outside it (work placements etc.). The applications will be discussed below, but first a brief summary of the various terms used to describe this approach.

  • Perhaps the most common term is "action learning": management learning is gained by experience of real work problems and from discussion with other managers. Reflection from this learning gives rise to new knowledge which in turn is expressed in the ability to take effective action. Revans (1971, 1983) was the first person to popularize this concept (Pell, 2000).
  • The term "practice-centred approach" is also used; for example, the Open University describes its MBA programme as "practice based" (Fenton-O’Creevy and Knight, 2006), and Lancaster University has an International Masters in Practising Management which is about the practice of managing –- "where art, science and craft all meet". It describes the process whereby students reflect on the tools, frameworks and theories they acquire at business school in the light of their experience of practice.
  • "Experiential learning" is a term used to describe (in a nutshell) the learning that comes from reflective experience.

Essentially all these terms describe a process of learning through exposure to the real world of practice. We shall explore below ways of doing this.

Organization and faculty

The engagement with practice is reflected in the way business schools are structured and the faculty they employ. Whereas many are organized according to business discipline, e.g. marketing, accounting, etc., not all are. For example:

  • Andrew Pettigrew, dean of Bath School of Management, takes pride in the way that his school is organized according to issue (organizational work and behaviour, strategic business networks, decision and information systems, institutional environment and corporate strategy, and technical management and business evolution). The result is a greater ability to research issues that are both relevant to business and scholarly.
  • The Open University MBA curriculum is organized around themes which bring different disciplines together, for example, "understanding performance".
  • The International Institute for Management Development (IMD) has no departmental structure in order to avoid classification by "subject" and to remain more customer focused.

Virtually all business schools involve the business community in their teaching, whether simply as visiting lecturers from the business community, or as faculty appointed for their business rather than research expertise:

  • Columbia Business School is well situated in one of the world’s premier business and finance locations – New York. Many chief executive officers (CEOs) in the city come to the school and spend an hour with students explaining what they do. On the other side of the world, the Australian Graduate School of Management has "meet the CEO" sessions in an attempt to give students and alumni access to contemporary business thinking.
  • At Ashridge Management College, where the main focus is on helping practising managers and executive education, faculty are not business academics, but people who have had strong business careers who can "relate to business challenges".
  • Johns Hopkins Business School has a separate "practitioner faculty" who hold positions such as sales manager, strategic planner, consultant, etc. whilst teaching at the school.

All schools have strong links with the business community and most have collaborative partnerships which are often centred on research:

  • Loughborough Business School has long-standing links with many blue-chip companies, including Ford, with whom they have created a Centre for Automative Management.
  • Wiso, Cologne, carries out many of its research projects as real world consulting projects.
  • IMD prides itself on carrying out research that is rigorous in the sense of "illuminating in the world of business, where judgements are made with messy, incomplete data, and where, for example, statistical and methodological rigour, pushed to the limit, can blind rather than illuminate".
  • At Columbia, faculty develop their ideas for research through their interaction with practice. They also balance their research with consultancy.
  • At IMD, all faculty work on practice-based research projects which are relevant to industry.

Often, the interaction occurs at individual faculty level, faculty members creating and maintaining their own links via consultancy, case studies and student interactions. Occasionally, however, interaction is more formalized:

  • IMD has a "Learning Network" which is a network of companies with a "passion for learning and development" whom it meets with on a regular basis and who provide feedback on industry developments.

For some business schools who occupy a specific geographical location, their geography determines their market segmentation.

  • The Australian Graduate School of Management has a particular focus on business in Australasia.
  • The China Europe International Business School focuses particularly on Chinese management within a global context.
  • The Hitotsubashi Daigaku Business School in Japan has a pragmatic approach following the bursting of the Asian economic bubble in the late 1990s. It tries to nurture the new "face of Japan" by bringing about a forum of exchange for business professionals.

Practical learning

Ultimately it is the type of learning experience that will form the student’s appreciation of the real business world and it is to this that we now turn.

"Practical learning" can be divided into two broad categories:

  1. that which takes place in the classroom or some other environment made available by the institution, and
  2. that which takes place in the workplace, supported by faculty at the institution.

Practical learning in the classroom

A loose definition of this might be "learning that is about solving a real business problem, either actual or strongly based on an actual situation, as opposed to learning about a business model or tool". There are several ways of fostering this type of learning.

Perhaps the commonest and oldest method is the case study. This was developed at Harvard University (with which it has become synonymous) and Northwestern before the First World War. The case takes either a real problem from a named institution, or a simulated one which has "real life" elements, a "proxy for experience" (Booth et al., 2000). The student is then required to solve it, as if in real life but in the safety of the classroom. There is no one right answer but the student must defend his or her interpretation. Many business schools also refer to their use of the simulation, similar to a case study and involving a real world situation is replicated in a controlled environment where the learner can practice without any ill effects to themselves or others. (The most common example given of learning by simulation is flying an aircraft.)

At Harvard Business School, 80 per cent of the teaching is done by the case method. Many other organizations also use the case method, including IESE, Barcelona, The Hong Kong Business School, and Australian Graduate School of Management, while the case study approach is a central plank of undergraduate education at York St John University in the UK.

At Herriot-Watt, students do a business start-up simulation exercise, working in teams to devise the idea and develop it commercially, write a formal business plan and present it to funders (Galloway and Keogh, 2007).

Business competitions and pitching events are also popular, for example at the China Hong Kong Business School, students can submit plans for new enterprises to a panel of judges. The same school also has "practicums", project teams which work on problems under the guidance of a faculty member, and submit a report to the board of a real, live company.

Finally, most business schools encourage teamworking skills as a key workplace skill, and the UK Quality Assurance Agency defines group work as a benchmark for MBA awards.

Practical learning on the job: work-related learning

Generally speaking, there is no better way of learning about business than by working in business. Most courses at both undergraduate and graduate level include some form of business experience, whether it is of a few weeks duration as an "intern" on a full-time MBA, as a year-out industry placement on a business BA, or an organizational project report for a part-time or executive MBA. Particularly in the UK and at undergraduate level, the driver is employability. The students also benefit from the ability to apply knowledge in a real setting and get to grips with the challenges of working for an organization. Work placements need to be integrated into the course and the students supported by faculty and coached in the relevant employability skills.

This type of learning is often referred to as "work-based learning", "work integrated learning" or "professional learning in the workplace". The former often relates to situations when "academia comes to the workplace rather than the other way around" (University of Westminster, 2007). The latter have been defined as "pedagogic approaches concerned with integrating academic studies and professional practices so that students, staff, employees and employers can develop their understanding of the reciprocal relationship between education and the world of work" (University of Westminster, 2007).

At the University of Westminster in the UK, "professional learning in the workplace" is fully integrated into the curriculum with a number of options. There are, for example:

  • courses based on the needs of full-time employees in a particular setting, with mentoring and assessment in the workplace;
  • sandwich and part-time courses where a period of professional work is a requirement;
  • formal placements lasting a year, to day release, to a couple of days;
  • informal placements;
  • projects which form part of module requirements and require specific participation in professional work.

Also in the UK, learndirect, the online course provider, has partnered with nine universities to offer skills-based learning to both undergraduates and postgraduates, and specific learning tailored to the needs of the employer. See

At Chicago Graduate Business School, students have the opportunity to work on problems with partner companies in a series of "labs", on general and strategic management, new venture and small enterprise, private equity and venture capital, and starting an international business.

The UK’s Foundation Degrees, brought in to meet skills gaps at associate professional and higher technician level, are even more linked in with employer requirements. They are often designed in partnership with employers and are as much informed by professional needs as by academic criteria.


This article has described a whole range of ways in which business can get involved in management education, and management education can provide a realistic experience of the business world. There is no doubt that in an age of mass consumption of higher education, it is the graduates with business experience and good employability skills who will be in greatest demand. Yet all these methods require the ability to work independently and critically reflect, which may be harder to encourage with large student numbers and fewer faculty resources proportionally. Thus providing opportunities for "real world learning" will continue to be a pedagogical challenge for today’s business and management departments.


Armstrong, S. (2007), "Blending formal and informal approaches to management learning", Open University, downloaded October 25 2007.

Booth, C., Bowie, S., Jordan, J. and Rippin, A. (2000), "The use of the case method in large and diverse undergraduate business programmes: problems and issues", International Journal of Management Education, Vol. 1 No. 1, downloaded October 25 2007.

Dreyfus, H. and Dreyfus, S. (2005), "Expertise in real world contexts", Organization Studies, Vol. 26 No. 5, pp. 779-792.

Fenton-O’Creevy, M. and Knight, P. (2006), "A dialectical approach to practice based learning. A paper for the symposium on ‘Developing managers not academics: towards a pedagogy of practice’", Academy of Management Conference, Atlanta, GA, USA, August.

Lave, J. and Wenger, E. (1991), Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

Mintzberg, H. (2004), Managers Not MBAs: A Hard Look at the Soft Practice of Managing and Management Development, Berret-Koehler, San Francisco, CA, USA.

Pell, G. (2000), "Action learning vs. traditional learning in a management development context: a longitudinal study of MBA candidates", International Journal of Management Education, Vol. 1 No. 3, downloaded October 25 2007.

Revans, R. (1971), Developing Effective Managers, Longman, London, UK.

Revans, R. (1983), "Action learning, its terms and character", Management Decision, Vol. 21 No. 1, pp. 77-88.

University of Westminster (2007), Models of Professional Learning from the Workplace at the University of Westminster, University of Westminster, London, UK.