Is business school innovation just about technology? 

John Byrne has published a provocative article on LinkedIn titled The most innovative business school ideas of 2015.

It’s an interesting survey of 10 U.S. business school initiatives that are deemed to be innovations. All of them involve the use of technology. The notions of innovation and technology are thus conflated. It appears that there can be no innovation without technology.

John makes some interesting claims. Firstly he suggests that:

“Most often, business school professors trot out well-worn examples from world class innovators ranging from Apple and Facebook to Uber and Tesla.”

Whilst I’m sure such famous brand examples are used frequently I know that many of my colleagues use just as interesting and less well known examples from their commercial experience and research. 

For example in my world of gambling one of the most disruptive innovations was the ‘nudge’ feature on slot machines, an idea patented by Cranfield Ltd (not related to the UK business school btw) 

Secondly the article appears to be grounded in the assumption that business school innovation is all about the way in which course content is delivered.

“Among all the innovation to hit the business school marketplace this year, we think there are at least ten that truly stand out–and deserve credit for being highly creative attempts to improve business education.”

I would ask if the delivery of business education through technological applications such as Mooc’s or revised on-line courses are educational improvements per se.

Sure the ‘delivery’ might be novel but are the educational (pedagogic/androgogic) approaches necessarily much different. 

The article does hint that content /educational innovations matter, but John makes another claim that I’m not sure accurately represents how management research happens. He says:

“For years, academics in narrow disciplines largely constructed theories of business education in the abstract, hoping that their outcomes would eventually line up with market needs.”

Really? John I recommend you read Evert Gummesson’s book Qualitative Research in Management Research. The first implied assumption in your statement is that management researchers exclusively use deductive theory building as the starting point for their research. In other words they sit in ivory towers inventing theories about business practice and then testing them out to see if they are false (Popper)

The second is that researchers restrict themselves to narrow silos. 

Taking the first assumption. Along with many management researchers a significant amount of theory is derived inductively. It starts with real world practice and produces deep and insightful explanations of that practice. Theories are explanations not simply abstract prescriptions that are waiting for the real world to play catch up. They ‘are’ the real world.

Taking the second assumption. In my case when I examined key account managers and value creation I didn’t restrict my research to ‘narrow’ managerial theory either, I made use of social constructionism (Schutz, Berger and Luckmann, Burr) Identity  theory (Elliott, Lawler, Goffman) Relevence Theory (Grice, Sperber and Wilson) and Imagination Theory (Brann, Warnock, Beaney). Whilst I agree these might not be common managerial areas of study  and they are definitely not ‘narrow’ in themselves nor was drawing from a diverse range of theory an exercise in ‘narrowing’.

The biggest omission in the article overall seems to be the way in which innovative business school thinking is scarcely touched on. 

No comment is made about challenges to the taken for granted dominant US business school paradigm of management that underpins the examples of technological innovation given in the survey.

Where is the challenge to positivistic research methodology? Where is the challenge to linear rational management analysis and decision making? Where is the challenge to the de-humanising of management practice through focus on technique and process?

I would argue that business school innovation truly starts by disrupting the educational paradigm on which many courses and curricula are based and that includes the feted MBA itself. 

So rather than just seeing business schools as merely training organisations (and the hand maidens of industry) which seems to be inferred when John gives the example of a school developing;

” a pathway or of cohesive courses that help students develop a specific set of skills(my emphasis).

I would argue that the only way business schools can be seen as innovators is by challenging the very subject of business itself. 

I suggest that innovative business school thinking comes through provoking practioners to critically reflect on business as a social phenomenon, to challenge its principles and its ways of acting, to devise new ways of seeing. 

True business school innovation is thus not the application of technology. It is the use of the very faculty of mind that has been disparaged for decades as childish and unreliable and rejected as unscientific by the dominant objectively driven outlook of the US business school paradigm. The human imagination is the source and application of business school innovation.

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