Are Business Schools Losing their Relevance for Marketers?

Well it is that time of year. School is about to start. As a practitioner who has spent close to 25 years teaching in business schools I thought I would reflect on my experience teaching marketing at two business schools . Business schools are different than other faculties. Professors should be obligated to work in business for a number of years before becoming academics in a business school… especially teaching marketing . All the academic research and learning won’t be of much use if you have no experience working in the “real world”. I feel it is extremely important that the professors have a basic understanding of the “real world.” Although theory is important, the ability to apply the theory to real-life situations is equally important.

“If the institution places research-focused faculty or graduate students in front of students, and the students lack any perspective gained through experience, the outcome will do little to enhance the managerial skill sets of the graduates.” states Lisa Marks Dolan, a business school dean, who also feels that much of the problem lies in the way teachers are trained. She states, “We’re being asked to produce graduates who can integrate, adapt, manage global diversity, work in teams, and bring out the best in others, yet these are not the skills that most doctoral candidates are asked to master as part of their training.”

Currently, most promotion and tenure decisions at Universities depend on articles published in leading journals and, to a lesser degree, on teaching and service.  Shouldn’t promotion and tenure  decisions also take the contributions to the advancement of marketing practice into consideration. If it is accepted that part of the purpose of business schools is to advance the  practice of business and marketing, including its impact on business strategy, business success, and society’s ability to address its challenges, this should be part of the consideration for tenure, salary increases, and recognition. But rarely does this happen. In fact , the opposite is true.

Most of the doctoral marketing programs today provide rigorous training in research methodology and theory.  Candidates must declare which track they are in i.e. behavioral or quantitative, not the substantive issues they are addressing, and then dive deeper into their respective disciplines. This provides a good foundation for conducting research. “What is of concern is what is missing—namely, marketers’ problems and the understanding of and passion for business.  Little, if any, time is spent on understanding the context of business and the day-to-day and strategic issues confronting managers.”

I cannot tell you how many times I have been told by students how surprised they are by the amount of theory they have to learn in business school but rarely take courses that actually deal with business. We have so called business courses that teach a multitude of theories , many useless,  but very very few  actually provide useful information that could be used by business students once they graduate.  I was once told by a senior academic that Universities are not Colleges where practical skills are taught.

My favourite example of the lack of practical information for business students was an incident I experienced a few years ago. I was assigning a case to my non profit marketing class and decided to assign them the The Mutual Fund Dealers Association of Canada case. One of the major challenges that my fourth year business students had with the case was that virtually none of the these students knew anything about  mutual funds, many never even  heard of mutual funds… all of these students had taken courses in Finance. Hard to believe but true.  This begs the question , what do students learn in Intro Finance aside from  mathematical formulas? Are these the same mathematical formulas that brought Wall Street and the world economy to its knees in the past year?

JEFFREY E. GARTEN,  former dean of the Yale School of Management, says he does not think business schools are doing a good enough job. Here are excerpts from a conversation with Mr. Garten, who became the dean after a career on Wall Street specializing in debt restructuring abroad and a stint as under secretary of commerce for international trade. (Issue Date: ARMCHAIR M.B.A., Posted On: 6/19/2005)

I think the current model of business school education needs to change dramatically. I think there should be different criteria for tenuring faculty. Right now, a professor would get tenure on the same qualifications as he or she would if they were in a department of economics or a department of history. What business schools need to do is add some criteria for promotion. One of them should be some real-world experience, in the same way that a doctor teaching at a medical school would have had to see patients.

Q. What percentage of business school professors have had experience in real companies?

A. I would say it’s minuscule. This is a very radical proposal. But let me give you a second. Business schools need to have a two-track faculty, with the second track being a clinical faculty, that is, people who may not have the academic qualifications to get tenure or even do real academic research, but who would bring into the classroom the world of practice and experience.

Yes practical experience. But what happens is the exact opposite. For example, if a business school is looking to become accredited the main criteria for its teaching staff is the amount and quality of its PhD’s , not the teachers who are practitioners with  practical experience.

Most professors , in my experience, focus their efforts not on teaching students but on academic research ( this is why many of them become academics and how they get promotions. i.e. publishing in prestigious journals.) But has anyone ever asked if any of this academic research is relevant?  According to Wharton professors David J. Reibstein, George Day, & Jerry Wind in their Guest Editorial: Is Marketing Academia Losing Its Way? (Journal of Marketing (01-JUL-09) “There is an alarming and growing gap between the interests, standards, and priorities of academic marketers and the needs of marketing executives operating in an ambiguous, uncertain, fast-changing, and complex market-space.

They go on to say “Why do marketing academics have little to say about critical strategic marketing issues and emerging issues, such as the impact of networked organizations, the impact and marketing of emerging technologies, the value of open innovation, the blurring of value chains, unethical marketing practices, the role of brands in global markets, the role of marketing when the customers are empowered, and the constant struggle of marketing practitioners to get a seat at the corporate strategy table? (see my previous July 28th 2009  blog Marketers Gets No  Respect)

The authors “contend that the gulf between marketing academics and senior marketing and corporate officers has widened. Academics are not listening to marketers’ needs and the issues they confront. The number of academics attending chief marketing officer and other chief-executive officer forums or paying attention to the output is  negligible.” ( kind of ironic that marketing academics are out of touch with the potential clients for their information)

Finally they suggest “It would be desirable to solicit input from chief executive officers and chief financial officers as to what they need from marketing that is not being adequately addressed. They  believe that this will yield research priorities that will help advance the discipline and its impact.

Imagine three top academics in marketing from Wharton -a top business school- recommending that it might be a good idea to solicit business people to ensure their research is relevant to the world of business, not to mention marketing in other sectors like non profits and public sector. … breathtaking!!!

I would be interested in hearing from academics, practitioners and yes from students in business schools.

Post script : An article: Marketing education doesn’t have to be this bad by David Finch, John Nadeau, Norm O’Reilly , the authors state:Unless there are fundamental changes in how undergrads are taught, tomorrow’s talent will enter the workforce disillusioned, ill-prepared and saddled with student debt for years.


One Reply to “Are Business Schools Losing their Relevance for Marketers?”

  1. Beautifully written. I think much of what you have stated applies not only to marketing, but to other management disciplines as well. The disconnect, in my view, arises because business management is a breadth field as opposed to being a depth field. Thus, it should be treated like Economics, Sociology, or any other social science. The emphasis on fields of specialization is overstated and that on application & production of relevant research is overstated. The gap reflects much more in a field like Marketing as opposed to say FInance because Marketing by its very nature is more dynamic and relies on practical evolution as opposed to theory. Finance allows itself to be obscured by numbers. We mistake the definiteness of numbers with accuracy. My experience in a Finance role suggests that Finance is every bit as dynamic, psychological & ‘soft’ as areas like Marketing. Unfortunately the business academics often fail to recognize this. The anecdote of the mathematician & engineer comes to mind – the engineer treats the equation as an ideal version of the real world, while the mathematician treats the real world as an approximation of the equation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

eleven − five =