Since controversial McGill University professor Henry Mintzberg famously pointed out that MBA programmes were labouring under irrelevant curricula and producing graduates well versed in theory but weak in practice, business schools around the world have been wrestling with the question of their own relevance.

It’s a discomfort that has intensified in the last decade in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008 and now, with the onset of the 4th industrial revolution that is threatening to remake the world as we know it.

At the heart of the debate is the question of what we, as business schools, teach. The anxiety is that the theory of business does not explain or inform practice fully, yet to be effective in business you must be grounded in practice.

Aristotle sums it up more poetically as: “Nor is wisdom only concerned with universals: to be wise, one must also be familiar with the particular, since wisdom has to do with action, and the sphere of action is constituted by particulars”.

Closing the gap between theory and practice

So how can business schools close this gap? That theory matters in any discipline is indisputable, so it is not simply about throwing theory out the window and glorying in practice alone. Both have their limitations.

Instead, business schools have been faced with the challenge of how to move the two elements closer together so that they can inform one another better and ultimately make for more effective managers and leaders.

Thus, most good business schools now offer an opportunity for practical application of what students are learning – via, for example, live cases or consulting assignments.

At the GSB we have several courses on the MBA that put students in direct contact with real businesses. Firstly there is the company analysis project which requires teams of MBA students to develop a multi-dimensional, strategic enquiry and analysis of participating organisations.

The Social Innovation Lab is a newer addition to the curriculum that emphasises the practical application of social innovation concepts in real-world contexts.  In addition, the establishment of a satellite base in Philippi—a community about 30 minutes away from the school’s waterfront campus—is also proving revolutionary to the way we get our students to engage with real-world challenges.

The vision of Philippi is to increase the relevance and impact of the school by working with entrepreneurs in the community to co-create new solutions to African challenges.

Another approach – and one that is fast gaining momentum – is to change scholarship practices and adjust the type of theory that is being taught to take more cognisance of practice.

This trend was very much in evidence at the recent Academy of Management  (AoM) annual conference in Chicago. An event that is regarded as one of the foremost on the academic calendar, the AoM conference drew attendance of more than 10,000 management scholars and it was striking to see that, across the board—be it in leadership studies, entrepreneurship, strategy or
HR—there was a marked shift towards research that was informed by the observation of practice.

It’s an approach known as process theory, and in its simplest form it seeks to explain how things are happening in practice. It sounds deceptively simple, and in a way it is. Process theory wants to study something in as neutral a way as possible without overlaying it with preconceived theories.

Understanding leadership from the perspective of those who are living it

For example, with regards to leadership theory; rather than describing a list of attributes and encouraging students to adopt a set of practices defined as “good leadership”, there has been a shift towards accepting that leadership has to be understood from the perspective of those who are living it and understand the complexity of that role.

For leadership scholars, this requires going beyond just interviewing leaders and taking their word for things and instead observing how they lead and how they do things. Actions speak louder than words, after all.

A fundamental recognition of this approach is that we can’t predetermine what will happen, because it is complex. While the tendency of theories of all kinds—and business theories in particular—is to somehow simplify the way we see the world in order to help us navigate it more effectively, the reality is different.

The world is complex, whether we like it or not and trying to simplify it through theory is ultimately limiting.

Learning to lead and manage in a complex world

Haridimos Tsoukas from the University of Cyprus and University of Warwick, argues that to survive in a complex world we have no hope but to dive right in and understand this as best we can. “To better understand the complexity of life you need a theory that can represent that complexity,” he states.

“Theoretical complexity is needed to account for organisational complexity.” And “it takes richness to grasp richness”.

Process theory does not try to gloss over the contradictions and complexity inherent in daily practice—rather it seeks to observe this and integrate it.

So how does this make business schools more relevant? Quite simply, because it means we are not giving students the comfort of a safe theory to take refuge in, but challenging them with the reality that they need to lead and manage in a complex world.

Part of this will require them to formulate their own theories of leadership and management and recognise that their journey is an ongoing becoming of self and organisation.

This approach enables an understanding backwards and a living forward dialectic that is so necessary in the reflexive practice of leadership.

Developing a culture of lifelong learning

The first step to relevance is therefore for business schools to acknowledge that we need to produce graduates who are equipped to carry on learning after they leave the classroom.

Business school graduates should be accomplished and knowledgeable certainly, but also humble and emergent. They need to understand that even though they have a premium degree under their belt, they may have less agency than they would perhaps like in a complex system. To navigate this world, they need to be able to reflect on their context and who they are, in order to make sense of where they have come from and step boldly towards the future.

One graduate of the Executive MBA programme at the UCT Graduate School of business, Luciano Zaina, describes this experience as being like a stick floating downstream. The stick might think it is in control but in reality it is dependent on the flow of water (process and practice) to take it where it wants to go. And the pace and direction of the stream are dependent on conversations and human interactions.

There are times when the stick will get caught in an eddy or become brittle—and in those instances, interventions can be useful to nudge the stick back into the current. A good leader is one that is able to help keep things flowing positively.

Business school graduates must understand that we are all products of the interactions we find ourselves in. And a leader with reflexive understanding is better placed to navigate this.

Far from facing irrelevance, the evidence from the AoM conference is that business schools are starting to understand this truth at scale and are once again, on the verge of restructuring. This is not the first time in the 100 plus years of business education that schools have heeded change and adapted to remain relevant—and it won’t be the last.

For information about the globally-recognised MBA at the UCT GSB please contact www.gsb.uct.ac.za/mba

Kosheek Sewchurran is the acting director of the UCT Graduate School of business. DM

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