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Panel: Do Business Schools Teach What Their Customers Need?

19th CEEMAN Annual Conference
Georgia - Tbilisi | 2011
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There was a lot of talk yesterday about how business schools should persuade Russia to join the European Union. This is hubris. We run business schools, not countries. We have four stakeholders in my view. We have social stakeholders, like the poor of South Africa. They are surprisingly happy; probably because of the weather or because of their collective way of life. But we have a duty to those people, which is part of the duty of the society in which we live. 

We also work for the industry that provides the financial resources, allowing our students to take our courses. We have another responsibility: to create knowledge and new thinking. And, there is a student body whose needs we have to address. 

What do these stakeholders want? 

Students expect contemporary solutions to contemporary problems. They ask, “What are the problems today and what do I do about them?” They want clarity in our assessment criteria and syllabi as well as reasonable workloads. They want to be able to do their academic work and enjoy themselves at the same time. Short MBAs should have a minimum real cost. Students also expect coolness and kudos. The MBA should be something you can talk about. That is why rankings are so important. Finally, they want jobs. 

The industry needs immediately usable graduates. 

The research authorities in any country want publication, relevance and impact. At least, they say they do. 

Society wants projects that produce a social impact; they want us to contribute to societal welfare. Of course, it wants us to behave responsibly. 

What these stakeholders need is a focus on long-term education, not a concentration on the transient, ephemeral, and temporary. They need futureproofing; that is, an education that will last them for 25 years, not for two years. They need pressure. Somebody who has spent 25 years in industry said to me once, “I do not want somebody who has had an easy education”, whether that is Philosophy at Oxford or Economics in Sao Paulo. The graduates need to be used to handling a heavy workload. 

From my viewpoint, business school graduates need to be interlocutors, combining theory and practice. And above all they need self-development. 

Industry wants future skill sets, not just those for today. As for the research agenda, I think that it is pretty much right. They do want impact and relevance but what they are missing out on is that they are not rewarding thought. Ultimately, that is what universities and academics do. 

In societal terms, we should be contributing to the economy and making long-term knowledge investments. 

How do we respond to this situation? Of course, we have to listen to our clients. But at the same time we should stick to what we believe. In my view, they are not customers. Customers are people who walk into your shop and say, “I want that electric fan and that lipstick”. You say, “Yes, Ma’am”. We are educators. Of course, we need to be responsive to the existing fashions. But we must do that within our own context. The context of Georgia is very different from that of South Africa. It is also very different from that of the Arab countries and China. We need to cooperate and compete at the same time. We must be sensitive to that transience but we must educate, not teach. Under no circumstances should deans allow any teaching to take place at their schools. They should cause learning to take place. That is a different matter. Deans should also not allow the contemporary to overrule the eternal. The easy part of education must not replace the developmental and the tough. Do not make the mistake of viewing the accreditation authorities or the press as anything but advisory bodies. Do not think that ratings or league tables matter to the process of transferring knowledge. And let us not make the mistake of believing that we know what is going to happen, because we do not. 

Concerning the question of entrepreneurship that has come up in today’s discussion, I think that this is something that needs to permeate the whole curriculum of a business school. It should be like the streaks that run across a marble slab. Modern business is simply impossible without entrepreneurship and innovation; the two cannot be separated. They are critical in any organization, including public ones. 

How do we promote learning and social responsibility? I do not think this is a particularly difficult thing to do. It depends on the state of mind of the students who are entering the institution. In our part of the world, the social issues are in the heart of people. They streak through the moral geography of the students. How do we approach this in practice? Our school has built linkages between South American, South African and Indian institutions. This enables the students to share experiences and go on something like a safari. The key thing is that they learn about the problems of other countries. This is required as part of the degree; they have to engage in a practical social program back in their country. This is assessed by professors at the university and the industry that provides the funding. That motivates the students dramatically.
19th CEEMAN Annual Conference: Management Education in a Changing World: Are We Ready for the Challenge?
September 2011
Published from:
October 2011
John Powell, Panel: Do Business Schools Teach What Their Customers Need?,
Accessed: June 24 2019,
Available at: http://ceeman.lecturehub.com/lectures/646/2011_ceemanac_tbilisi_powell_dbstwtcn
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