On MBAs and Business School Faculty

When business schools function properly, the energies of MBAs students and Faculty members flow with a sense of purpose. They push against big issues. They connect with all kinds of leaders and enterprises. The world seems small because their networks are so active.

Achieving this state of vitality and reach isn’t a sure thing, however. The Dean and professional staff cannot “manage to these outcomes.” Rather, their role is to set the stage.

What is the common mistake that Deans make? They try to minimize the distance between MBAs and Faculty members. Setting the stage properly instead starts with the recognition that these two groups of talent-laden people are fundamentally different. The best MBA students are interested in action that will add durable value and satisfy their sense of purpose. The best Faculty members are committed to critical thought and inquiry. They love being in the long hunt for ideas and evidence.

Each group should be respected. But efforts to bring them together as one community are misguided and prone to failure. Before I am misunderstood, let me say that I believe very much that Faculty members should care about their students and vice versa. They should get along. They should spend time together and can enjoy getting to know each other. My point is, however, that it is important to accept their differences and not pretend that MBAs and Faculty members are the same species.

Sidebar Question from Economics:

i. Suppose that each country can only trade with one other country.
ii. Take Finland as a case study.

True or False: Finland would be better off with Sweden as a trading partner than with France.

Answer: False.

Explanation: Sweden is a neighboring country and so transportation costs are low. But Sweden and is a lot like Finland, which limits the potential gains from trade. By contrast, France’s economy is not only bigger but also more different, opening up greater trading opportunities.

The insight from economics is, of course, that differences between MBAs and Faculty mean that there are potential gains from trade. The relevant question is, then, how can these gains be maximized? One component of right approach is to make sure that the Faculty members know that the Dean supports their work and wants them to achieve their highest aspirations, including setting high standards for teaching. The other main component is to encourage MBAs to take full advantage of the limited time they have to enhance their critical thinking skills, to deepen their knowledge of frameworks, and to broaden their perspectives. Alumni whose approach to their work reflects a commitment to learning and fact-based decision-making can help enormously in making the case for serious learning.

But in setting the stage for this high-level exchange, a Dean is doing just that and nothing more. It is up to Faculty and MBA student leaders to make it happen. Then, if it works, enjoy the action.

June 23, 2011

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