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Management Education

August 9, 2010

Sunday was Henry Mintzburg day at the AoM with two sessions involving the master. The AoM organising committee really deserve a slating for the location of the sessions. People were sat on the floor and in the corridor outside the room. It doesn’t take much intelligence to realise that a session involving such a major figure needs a bigger room. The error is compounded by the first sentence of p32 of the summary guide which says: Encounter an overflow crowd at an Academy of Management annual meeting, and the chances are good that the session in question will include Henry Mintzberg. It is bad enough to be caught our by unexpected demand, but to fail to plan for expected demand strikes me as a poor advert for management science.

Rant over, the main subject was the role and purpose of management education. Now there were some angels on the heads of pins discussions about whether you should be a business school or a management school. However the essence was a debate over management as a practice or as theory. On one side (and the Dean of UCL represents an extreme here) was the argument that you could rehearse people through simulation and case studies to prepare them for practice. Opposing that was Henry who argued that management was a practice. We had a supporting cast of presenters that included a sociologist arguing to some effect that we should teach multiple forms of organisation including collectives etc. You knew he was a sociologist by the way as everything was interpreted in terms of power, its an unhealthy obsession of the discipline to my way of thinking.

There was one very memorable quote from Henry (he used it in all three sessions I attended but it was still good), who said that George Bush treated Iraq like it was a case study except he didn’t read the case. He is of course the only President with an MBA.

Filtering through the various ideas, examples and rhetoric, by take would be:

  • No one should really do an MBA until they have management experience , practice needs to inform the learning. I remember on my own MBA (many years ago) everyone was a manager, and we managed during the three year part time course. The whole think was a lot better as a result.
  • The basics of finance, law, OR etc. need to be taught on the basis of providing a common body of knowledge, and ideally there should be considerable overlap between business schools.
  • Cases are vastly overrated
  • Statistical techniques are vastly overrated
  • The net effect of cases and statistics is to create a cadre of anally retentive analytical types with no practical wisdom
  • We need to give people a broad education in ideas and how to find more – that means teaching anthropology, philosophy and other humanities to increase the diversity of material that the managers will have in their future lives
  • I still like the use of a real thesis as part of the final year
  • Full time MBAs are a bad thing, periods of study or part time work would keep people rooted in practice.
  • Management consultants should not be allowed by law to employ people with a BA in business studies followed by an MBA, much of the evil of consultancy practice would be avoided in consequence
  • Management scientists need to reflect on Warren Bennis’s famous suggestion that they all suffer from Physics Envy.

If we can get really combine practice and theory it will be a good thing, but with some honorable exceptions I didn’t see many signs.

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