My Scholarly Reflections

This is where I tell what I think, so that I see what I say

A problem in b-school organizational design: why b-schools are not like medical schools

with 4 comments

In my previous post (here), I cited Herbert Simon’s article to start off my musings on the ‘problem in organizational design’ of business schools. My inspiration comes from another blog here. I am going to back to the article to highlight issues with business school as a learning space. Herbert Simon states that “Business schools are a particular species in the genus known as professional schools” (p.2)  He then goes on to compare business schools with other professional schools in the medical and engineering domains, invoking parallels related to teaching and research. Business schools, he asserts, like med and eng. schools, need to combine science and professional practice in order to be effective.

Is this a fair comparison? In order to highlight issues in this comparison, business schools as learning spaces can be analyzed in terms of three aspects: content, pedagogy and credentials.

First, content. Med school content involves application of ‘hard science’ disciplines. The applications have been developed through rigorous scientific methods, standardised and widely accepted. This cannot be said about the content of B-school content. Of course, content related to such areas as accounting (backed by global professional bodies), and finance ( amenable to established quantitative methods borrowed from hard sciences) stand out. But there are problems, even in these domains (the comments on issues with business schools and particularly references to the famous ‘CAPM’ model in finance on this blogpost (here) are highly enlightening!). Path-breaking theories, such as ‘transacion cost theory’, taught in standard curricula have even been considered to be ‘bad for practice’ (see this by Ghoshal and Moran; Ghoshal’s highly cited article is also noteworth: Bad Management Theories are Destroying Good Management Practice, abstract here). There is a lot that can be said about content but space does not allow that, and the interested readers can do their own ‘googling’ to find out. The point is that b-school content, even the most fundamental one (‘efficient market hypothesis’ in finance, the marginalist principle in economics, and these domains are considered to be closest to ‘hard science’!!)  is controversial both with respect to its claims as ‘scientific truth’, and its claims to providing guidance to professionals. Medical and Engineering domains do not face this problem, even if they do, it appears to be not so severe.

Second, pedagogy. Medical and engineering education involves artefacts which appear to have high ‘fidelity’ to the real world. Medical schools are linked with ‘teaching hospitals’. Students often work on real human bodies. The tools used in med school are often the same used in the hospitaI. I was the other day watching a documentary which showed special ‘medical make-up artists’ who create almost life-like wounds on real humans (acting as patients) through special makeup. These actors with artificial wounds are used in role plays to teach students. Similarly engineering labs and instruments can be identical to the real world technical artefacts. And what do b-schools do? [ Professor Larry Michaelsen’s  ‘Integrative Business Experience’,is an exception, see his article on page 25, here (pdf)). B-schools have instituted similar activities involving ‘real life’ experience for students in businesses….but there are issues in those replications/adaptations…more on that some other time.

Third, credentials. Only med schools can provide the main qualification, approved and accredited by the national and international professional bodies (Medican Councils etc), including further examinations to attain professional membership. Engineering has a similar situation. Both med and eng schools are indispenable credentialling organizations without which professionals cannot in most circumstances practice. There is no competitor or alternative source of credentials. In business schools only the accounting domain has a similar situation. But accounting bodies have the potential to pose as competitors to b-schools. Would you prefer a CPA/CA/ACCA qualification or a Bachelor of Accounting? Of course parents and students would like to ‘hedge’ their options by first going for a basic degree and then a suitable professional qualification ( I have personally heard this line of argument from parents!). One thing is noteworthy though: Professional accounting bodies are the ultimate source of practice based knowledge in the accounting profession; this role is often legally determined to be assumed by those bodies, hence their exclusive domain. So which institution is a better creator/disseminator of knowledge in accounting: professional bodies or the b-school? Here is CPA Australia’s web portal; compare their ‘professional development’ programmes, and the ‘knowledge portal’ with a standard b-school offering in accounting.

I believe it is of utmost importance that I as a higher education professional think about the ‘core business model’ of higher education. and take a birdseye view beyond the daily grind of the ‘production line’. This is not to demean my profession in anyway, BUT to sharpen my own career focus in the profession, devise a strategy to strengthen my competitive advantage, and in the process, find out ways to suggest improvements in the business model.



Written by Amer Khan

April 28, 2012 at 11:15 pm

4 Responses

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  1. I have the same questions! But I have some guesses here, possibly, will answer some of my own questions, and yours as well (hopefully).
    The boundary of the knowledge in ‘Business’ cannot be determined by most B-Schools. Partly due to commercial reasons, B-Schools, in most universities, are the largest school/faculty generating huge amount of revenue for the Uni. Meeting the needs of the business community became an utmost priority. This may not be the case for the Medical schools where the knowledge is being framed according to the epistemology of science. Hence the curriculum of B-Schools is always evolving.
    This leads to the problem of credential. How can an ever-changing curriculum gets the credential of some professional bodies? Another aspect will be, how to give credential if the boundary of the knowledge is ever evolving? I not offering a solution here but rather more questions!
    With the ever evolving change of curriculum and boundary of knowledge, how to have a ‘stabalized’ pedagogy then? Harvard claimed that they were the first to come up with the case study teaching method but how superior is case study over other methods such as problem-based method, collaborative learning, etc. The boundary of knowledge is so broad that there is no single teaching method that can cover all. In Medical Schools, this may be a different story. There is a specific way to teach medical science. Think about this – can your Physics teacher use different method to teach, say, Static? Can your Math teacher use different method to teach, say, Geometry?
    Lastly,with regard to Accounting (my profession), I feel that B-Schools should prepare their graduates well for the professional world. The role of the professional bodies should mainly be the regulator and the provider of continuous professional development. Again, due to commercial reasons, I suppose, what most B-Schools did for their Accounting graduates is way underwhelming. If I can, i would urge all B-Schools to re-look at their Accounting degree curriculum and to take the initiative to match what the accounting profession needs. Accounting is very different from other disciplines in B-Schools. Technical knowledge is the fundamentals to a good accountant and this cannot be underestimated. But are our accounting graduates be ready to meet the technical competency challenges awaiting them? I do not know.

    CY Fung

    April 29, 2012 at 5:19 pm

    • Thanks CY, for your comments (given your research focus I was actually looking forward your comments!).
      You raise quite a few issues which play important roles in shaping the structure of b-education. I would like to focus on your example of accounting and the ‘technical’ nature of its content. Herbert Simon, in his article that I cited, brings forth two kinds of education:liberal and professional. In liberal education, ‘knowledge is pursued for its own sake’ (p.3); professional knowledge is obviously for more pragramtic, practical needs. He has tried to brush aside the differences between these two forms of education, but I think, the example of accounting shows issues with the liberal vs. professional framework of knowledge. If accounting education at the university is all about technical skill development, then I think the professional path of apprenticeship in an organization, and working on passing the relevant exams is a more pragmatic idea. This is because professional accounting firms etc. where the student is working as an apprentice is a better place to master the technical skills required, in a relevant social setting. Universities will always be one step behind the professional bodies in providing knowledge leadership, and highly immersive learning opportunities. But then, universities (and their constituent business schools?) also have this higher objective of ‘knowledge for the sake of knowledge’. I dont see the technical skills focussed needs of the industry match with the liberal aspiration of the business schools.

      Your second point that I find interesting is regarding pedagogy. you highlight issues with case study vs collaborative learning in business. Actually, in terms of pedagogy, the methods you mentioned can be used with ease in any discipline, whether science, math, physics or business. In fact, if you do a bit of searching around for research on pedagogies, you would notice that collaborative, problem based learning and other similar interactive methods have actually been vigorously applied, and rigorously researched in med/eng and science domains. For example, ‘story based’ teaching has been used in science (see this book: Peer instruction was pioneered, probably among others, by Prof Eric Mazur in the domain of Physics (


      April 30, 2012 at 10:58 pm

  2. Exactly what I wanted: applying org theory to higher education. I have to get hold of this book.


    May 13, 2012 at 9:10 pm

  3. Reblogged this on Stories from a Stiletto Dean! and commented:
    fantastic piece!

    Dr Sonal Minocha

    May 27, 2012 at 1:36 am

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