Most people taking an MBA or participating in an executive education programme at a major school will be taught by someone who has come through the traditional PhD system – a set-up that often tends to churn out academics who are passionate and informed about their subject but are less inspiring as communicators.
Several establishments, such as France’s EMLYON business school, Belgium’s Vlerick Leuven Gent, and HEC Paris, are seeking to widen their talent pool by recruiting faculty with more varied backgrounds, particularly those who have worked on the front lines of the business world.
Joseph LiPuma, the director of the international MBA at EMLYON, worked in technology consulting for more than 20 years before deciding to cross over and take a DBA. “The fact that I worked so long on the other side of the fence gives me credibility with students. I’m teaching how to do things I’ve done myself,” he says. “However, my background is still regarded as unconventional and when I was looking for my current post it was obvious that there were schools out there that didn’t know what to make of it. Fortunately EMLYON’s focus on all types of entrepreneurship means that my practical approach fits in very well here.”
LiPuma, however, points out that this practical approach does not mean he has abandoned the research aspect of academic life. “I’m heavily involved in this alongside teaching and the management of the MBA programme,” he says, “but I’m always conscious of making my research as useful as possible to the day-to-day business world. My speciality is what effect different sources of capital have on the growth potential of firms. Something like that isn’t just of abstract interest, it can make a real difference to the success or failure of real businesses.”
According to Phillippe Haspeslagh, dean of Vlerick Leuven Gent, ditching pure academic research could alienate a large proportion of faculty and also jeopardise a school’s position in business education rankings. He advocates bridging the gap between academic research and its more applied, pragmatic equivalent by working closely with a consortium of corporate partners, which helps keep research rooted in the demands of everyday business.
In Germany, a country that has come relatively late to conventional business education, the ESMT school in Berlin follows a similar model. The school was founded in 2002 by a consortium of corporate luminaries such as Allianz, Deutsche Bank, Lufthansa and Siemens, who still provide visiting lecturers, financial help for students and a fertile working environment for researchers.
“Being a strong educator is about more than just being a good presenter,” says Luc Wathieu, ESMT’s associate dean of faculty. “Researchers who focus on real-life issues tend to do well in the classroom by bridging the gap between theory and practice. Having the network of founding companies behind us means we’re able to offer a lot of opportunities for field-based research which feed into this.”
At the HEC Paris school the executive education department has tackled the challenge of combining the practical with the intellectual by creating mixed academic teams. In these teams, relatively new faculty, hot off the PhD press, work alongside both experienced professors with backgrounds in consulting and teaching executive audiences and, perhaps most importantly, adjunct faculty, made up of alumni or partners with day jobs in actual business management. In the new Reinventing Management programme, run jointly with Oxford’s Saïd school, HEC has taken this team approach as far as including multidisciplinary academics, such as historians and philosophers. “It’s an excellent way of transferring knowledge,” says deputy dean Bertrand Moingeon, “and it creates a positive ‘tension’, which benefits all participants.”
However, some in the business school world still believe that far from standing in the way of effective teaching, academic research actually plays a vital part in its delivery.
“There’s a place for the practical but there’s also a one for theory,” says Jenny George, the new dean at the Melbourne Business School. “Employing a theoretical approach isn’t just a luxury that PhD students can indulge in, it can actually help to change the way that you think and markedly enhance your capacity to analyse situations and to deal with new problems, new challenges, new ideas. Yes, the business school experience is about the passing on of knowledge, but we can’t hope to teach what the world will look like in 10, 20 or 30 years’ time. What we can give our students is the capacity to cope in the future by constantly pushing their intellectual abilities.”