Guest post by Martin Binks, former Dean of Nottingham University Business School and a Professor of Entrepreneurial Development at its Haydn Green Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
IT is widely accepted that the biggest challenge facing business schools today is to remain relevant. In an age when phrases such as “paradigm shift” and “game-changer” are employed with unthinking abandon, our willingness to muster a meaningful response to the transformation taking place all around us is too often rooted in natural inertia.
Of course, everyone turns into a dinosaur eventually. When I was appointed dean of Nottingham University Business School five years ago, propelled into the role with just a few weeks to re-orientate my focus from running a teaching and research institution, I had little doubt that most of the students would regard me as decidedly Jurassic.
Yet, there is a marked difference between individuals inexorably finding themselves “out of date” and an entire sector increasingly allowing itself to become ever further removed from the cutting edge of technology and development. The former is a fact of life; the latter, ultimately, is a matter of extinction.
Having recently completed my deanship, I consider myself fortunate to have been afforded a greater understanding of the things business schools do well and the things they do somewhat less impressively. I now appreciate, too, having attended numerous conferences and shared my experiences and insights with other deans, that these successes and shortcomings are common to business schools around the world.
At Nottingham I had charge of approximately 2,000 students in the UK and oversight of another 3,200 within the business schools at the university’s campuses in China and Malaysia. Shaping the curriculum so that it would best meet their requirements in terms of both content and delivery was one of my most important duties.
As any dean knows only too well, this is both a privilege and a burden. There are opportunities and constraints alike. Although we have significant autonomy, we have to negotiate various permissions with regard to appointments and expenditure that sit outside our allocated budgets.
It is true that management responsibility in universities still lies principally with academics. Yet, this flawed but fundamentally appropriate approach is under mounting threat. As Benjamin Ginsberg remarks in The Fall of the Faculty, the encroachment of professional administrators into all areas of management – most notably strategic and financial – represents a real danger throughout academia.
The need to seek permission is not without its advantages. For instance, it requires deans and their teams to construct strong, clear cases for their proposals. Yet the cost of negotiations, as I found out, is the time and distractions that arise as a consequence of the steady move from trust-based relationships to the box-ticking processes of justification.
The enormous value of trust-based working is becoming ever more elusive in modern organisational structures, including business schools. I repeatedly heard its merits stressed at deans’ conferences, but I just as often heard concerns over the loss of curricular control to centralised planners and the consequent erosion of a meaningful rapport between faculty and students.
This brings me back to the issue of dinosaurs. The more you distance yourself from the student population, whether by design or decree, the less likely you are to meet their needs. The constraints that nowadays envelop business schools – bureaucracy, centralism, metrics, measurable outcomes – are not conspicuously conducive to the freedom necessary to change, adapt and stay relevant.
I have long been a believer in radical innovation. My half-decade as a dean has only strengthened that conviction. The university sector in general has let itself become wearily accustomed to incrementalism, and such a philosophy too often sits uncomfortably with the demands of the “real world”. Business schools in particular too easily overlook how well positioned they are to champion the radical over the risk-averse.
As I hand over the reins to my successor, I like to think I got most things right; and yet I also know there are things I could have done better. The same might be said of the sector as a whole. If there is one lesson above all others that I have learned it is that dinosaurs are getting younger. The need for dramatic evolution grows ever more pressing.