The more I travel around the world, the more apparent it becomes that business education is changing. Schools are more internationally connected than ever, and the range of educational programs and technological platforms grows wider every day. Business is globalizing, which is creating demand for business education and for well-educated business leaders. While this emerging new world is ripe with opportunities, it also presents some interesting questions. How do our observations of, and experiences with, schools that are having positive impact in these diverse contexts align with our traditional view of accreditation?
I have wondered about this as I have visited schools around the world, but most recently in the Commonwealth of Independent States, that group of countries formed following the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Business schools in the CIS are evolving rapidly, as necessary to meet rapidly growing demand and rapidly emerging opportunities. But few schools in this region have AACSB accreditation. Nevertheless, many of them, certainly those I have visited, seem to be quite good in every sense of the word. Many of these schools evolved in emerging markets and in economic, social, and political situations that might make it difficult for them to achieve accreditation. But does that mean they aren’t as good as accredited schools?
The crux of this matter lies in our understanding and definition of goodness. What is a good business school, and are we as an accredited community understanding and applying the standards in alignment with that definition? While I’m sure there are many ways to define “good,” I want to focus on three specific dimensions.
First, good schools build a strong bridge between theory and practice. That tension, between theory and practice, can be understood through the lens of Thorngate’s (1976) principle of commensurate complexity. It is simply hard to do work that is simultaneously rigorous and accurate, simple and accessible, broad and general. As a community of AACSB accreditation stakeholders, we seem to have chosen to focus primarily on the first. We do science that is rigorous and of the highest quality, but we often do so at the expense of accessibility and applicability. Moreover, we’ve instilled that tradeoff into the norms of our profession, by the way we identify exemplars, by the way we recognize and reward faculty, by the values conveyed in the accreditation standards—and, importantly, the ways we interpret and apply those standards.
The irony here is that while many of our best faculty are frequently recognized and rewarded because of their research, the vast majority of our graduates are trained for and work in practical and applied careers. That growing gulf between how we see ourselves professionally and what we do practically portends problems down the road. To be clear, this is not a criticism of research. Quite the contrary, the development of new knowledge is essential to the vitality of an academic community. But that new knowledge must also be applied for some benefit.
Good schools, it would seem, recognize this challenge and find ways to span the gap between theory and practice. After all, if our students are not made better, because of their proximity to our faculty and to the research we conduct, then where is the value in that research?
The second dimension is related, somewhat, to the first and deals with the absolute value of research. We do science that is rigorous and validated, of course, but we also do science that we expect will make a difference. But what does that really mean? If you follow conversations on AACSB’s member forum, then you know measuring impact is an issue with which we all struggle. But I fear that focusing simply on measurement misses much of the point. For instance, who consumes our research anyway? Using impact factors as a principle measure of impact suggests that our research is consumed principally by other researchers. Is it enough to demonstrate impact, if we are the only ones being impacted? Does our scholarship make a meaningful difference, outside of the scholarly community?
“Are we seeking to address important phenomenological questions, or are we simply seeking to publish?"
The absolute value of research speaks to the issues of currency, quality, and the institutional reputations we work so hard to build and protect. Good schools should make a positive difference, not just through their presence but also because of the work they do. One of the things I have observed among the small group of CIS schools I have visited is a palpable sense of urgency around the creation of meaningful knowledge. Leaders in business, government, and NGOs all want answers to pressing questions in the areas of management, finance, marketing, etc. And they look to the emerging business education sector for answers. It’s an enormous opportunity to make a positive difference, through the practice of scholarship. And so, I wonder, for the larger global business education community, is our research making that sort of difference?
Accredited schools, especially those in developed economies, might ask themselves if they are making the same kind of difference in their communities. Are we seeking to address important phenomenological questions, or are we simply seeking to publish? Moreover, are the norms of our profession, and the standards and practices of our accreditation, pushing us toward research that is more meaningful and impactful, in the markets we serve? If we aren’t doing those things, we need to ask ourselves why not, and challenge ourselves to do better.
Finally, closeness to the market is the final, and perhaps most important of the three dimensions. Good schools should have a close connection to market forces. While few accredited business schools are in danger of going out of business, it might be healthy if more of us acted as if we were. Certainly, in the CIS, market forces are felt and appreciated in a real and tangible way. In truth, though, few academics like thinking this way. We are supported by our states, by our endowments, and by the long-standing traditions of our alumni, and we are supported so well that we rarely think about what that support represents, or what our world would look like if that support were to stop. Early organizational scholars (Thompson, 1967; Cyert and March, 1963) recognized the buffering and numbing effect of organizational slack. A close connection to the market can guard against complacency and keep us hungry. Good schools, it seems to me, take nothing for granted. Instead, they work every day to engage the market, to anticipate its movements, and to push themselves ahead of its evolution.
That sort of proactive effort can take many forms, whether it be the launch of new programs to serve emerging market segments, the continuous advancement of curriculum, or the use of things like advisory boards or industry focus groups, to provide feedback on the school’s products as well as input on the environment. Regardless of the form, good business schools understand that their value propositions include doing business in the market. Certainly, that sense of urgency is more pronounced and genuine across the CIS, and perhaps other parts of the world, than it is here in the U.S., for example. Still, some connection to market forces, along with some sense of the energy, exuberance, and gusto that goes along with it, is a good thing, for the school and its constituents.
Goodness and Accreditation
There is no doubt that AACSB accreditation is a signal to the marketplace, assuring the market that schools are driven by distinctive intellectual capital that is externally validated and valuable. Accredited schools have the financial resources, along with the systems of governance, to ensure their reliability. And they have in place mechanisms to reach out and connect with the marketplace, so as to maintain relevance, to serve their constituents, and to adapt to changes in the markets they serve. The AACSB brand itself, then, conveys something positive about the quality, reliability, and recognizability of a school and its programs.
But at the same time, it seems to me that many non-accredited schools, particularly those that I have visited in the CIS, must be considered “good” by the three measures outlined above. The question that then arises is, are accredited schools meeting these three standards as well as the non-accredited institutions? If the answer is yes, then we have further affirmation that accreditation reflects quality and that the community of accredited schools is impacting the world in a positive and meaningful way. We should be intentional about that, in our marketing, our strategy, and our operations. If the answer is “no,” however, then the existence of these “good” schools poses a real threat to the AACSB brand. Therefore, anyone with a stake in the value of AACSB accreditation should take care to ensure that goodness and accreditation are parallel imperatives.
Allen Amason is dean of the Parker College of Business at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, Georgia.