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.

Realistic Business Engagement Advice For Business Schools

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There is a fine line to be trod between customer orientation and customer worship. This presents a real challenge for a business school.

Surely a key aspect of a university business school’s value proposition is not just a claim to research independence but also an independent advisory voice that can express things without fear or favour.

Once again my author of the week Michel de Montaigne offers insight. In his essay on the role of ambassadors (chapter xvi) he also summarises the key purposes in society for clerics, soldiers, merchants, and courtiers.

Courtiers have special responsibility for ceremonies and manners. They are close to the Patron and this seems to be a very fortunate position. I don’t think it is too much of stretch to see a business school in the role of courtier. However in chapter xv de Montaigne points out the problem of being a courtier…

“A man that is purely a courtier, can neither have power nor will to speak or think otherwise than favourably and well of a master, who, amongst so many millions of other subjects, has picked out him with his own hand to nourish and advance; this favour…”

Is it feasible to avoid the ‘courtier trap’ as business school I wonder?

Does Business School Thinking Affect Marketing Action?

service dominant logic-service theory-marketing theoryDoes business school thinking change the way that marketing executives do their job? Or do business schools simply look at how marketing done in the ‘real world’ and school business students in what already takes place?

I’m pretty sure that most marketing executives are unaware (and probably disinterested) in alot of the very specific and arcane thinking and research work of the majority of marketing academics. This is a fact that worries some academics as they perceive an increasing gap developing between what academics find ‘interesting’ and what marketing practioners would like to know in order to be better at what they do. There are many journal articles on this theme such as:

Musings on Relevance and Rigor of Scholarly Research in Marketing. Varadarajan, P. Rajan. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, Fall2003, Vol. 31 Issue 4, p368-376

Beyond the one-dimensional marketing manager: The discourse of theory, practice and relevance. Brownlie, Douglas; Saren, Michael. International Journal of Research in Marketing, May97


The Academy and The Practice: In Principle, Theory and Practice Are Different. But, in Practice, They Never Are.
Pringle, Lewis C.. Marketing Science, Fall2001, Vol. 20 Issue 4

The concern in Business Schools is growing so much that the July 2009 edition of The Journal of Marketing leads with a guest editorial by David Reibstein, George Day and Jerry Wind called Is Marketing Academia Losing Its Way?

I’m not sure this is actually the case. At the moment there are two key interelated conversations taking place. One in Academic circles and the other in the digital Social Media space.

The mantra of the Social Media is all about connecting, collaboration, networks, open source, and influence. (At the extremes of course its about SEO or internet selling but the dominant theme is about the social dimension and serving your customers well.)

The hot topic in Business School marketing is Service Dominant Logic This is an idea put forward by Stephen Vargo and Robert Lusch in a 2004 Journal of Marketing article called Evolving to a New Dominant Logic for Marketing. In a nutshell it claims that a new ‘theory’ of marketing is necessary to explain how marketing is done in the 21st century. The authors emphasise its not simply making a case for the value of Service Marketing versus Goods Marketing its actually concerns a profound mind-set change that embraces, co-creation, collaboration, and networks.

So how much of what we read on blogs, airport lounge management books, marketing magazine articles and so on really comes from this original source? and how much is the work of Vargo and Lusch simply a reflection of what is happening ‘out there’ in the real world? Perhaps it becomes self referencing. Marketers seeking out ‘academic’ verification and a pat on the back for things they are up to. A sort of co-creation is good because Pine, Gilmour, Vargo and Lusch say it is and overlooking the possibility that these writers might be simply making sense of what they see not actually prescribing something marketers should do!

As for Academia the Vargo and Lusch article has ruffled feathers. Not everyone has bought into the appeal of a new marketing logic that replaces the old ‘wonky’ one of Levitt and Kotler. In particular John and Nicholas O’Shaughnessy have claimed in their January 2009 Vol 43 no.5/6 European Journal of Marketing article The Service Dominant Perspective:a backward step that the Vargo and Lusch approach is a crude attempt to provide the impossible. They imply that seeking on absolute theory of marketing is based on a ill-founded positivistic assumptions. The idea that ‘out there’ there is an ideal form of Marketing just waiting to be discovered. They favour a multi-perspective approach. There are many ways to explain marketing.

Now how relevent this debate is for every day marketing is a moot point. It seems on the one hand we have a desire to improve the decision making and problem solving capability of everyday marketers and the other we have curiosity in marketing as a social phenomenon.

Maybe just maybe the muti-persepective approach is what Marketing really needs because versatility of perspective encourges innovative thinking. So think again when you read blogs and tweets about the service dominant imperative. Are you un-thinkingly being forced done one channel of thought. Are you sure you really know which marketing school is influencing what you do!

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Critical Marketing

marketing-introspection-marketing management-marketing concept-marketing philosophy

How seriously do marketing practioners question the assumptions they act upon? I don’t mean questioning the effectiveness of the tools and techniques they use, I mean the very foundations of contemporary practice. Notions such as the necessity for competition, the value and benefit of technological applications such as CRM and Social Media, the logic of materialism and consumerism.

How many marketing people believe the purpose of their role is to become proficient in the language and jargon of the profession and proficient in understanding and applying the ‘given’ generic tools of basic marketing education, and how many critically question the value of the approach and tools for people organisations and society?

So what? well perhaps facing up to these questions might begin to help ‘marketing’ influence and persuade people of its value.

Marketing people seem to be very good at defining other people’s Value Propositions and remarkably poor at convincingly articulating their own.

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