MBA students are often puzzled why faculty at top business schools are not either current or former executives with so-called “real world experience”. Instead, academics with PhDs teach the next generation of executives.
The overwhelming majority of faculty members have never been entrepreneurs or executives with any meaningful business experience. The higher ranked the business school is, the more likely the faculty member is someone with academic rather than real world experience. As I am convinced of the merits of the approach followed by leading institutions, let me explain the logic.
Teaching is not the main job
Currently, I am seeking an academic position. Beyond compensation, the other equally important criteria in selecting which university should be my home is what is called “teaching load”. How much will I have to teach each year? Each school has a somewhat different metric – points, hours, courses, or days. Ultimately, they all boil down to how many hours of contact time with students in a year, and how this teaching load will be distributed across the year. Fewer total hours which can be aggregated within a short time is the best, as it leaves the rest of the year free.
For example, my teaching load at London Business School could be delivered in 20 days spread across eight weeks in the year. A degree course at London Business School met 20 times for 90 minutes. Three courses were done in the week format of all day teaching, while one course met every other weekend for a day. Of course, these contact hours do not include preparation and grading. Since I could teach the advanced marketing strategy elective in my sleep and it generated enough demand for four sections, the preparation time was inconsequential. Grading took another week per course. However, if I taught in executive education, then there was no grading. This situation never ceased to amaze my friends, who queried what I did with the rest of my time.
The higher ranked the university, the more the real job of the faculty member is creating new knowledge that others will teach. For example, a medical university trains budding doctors how to cure cancer. But someone has to generate the knowledge on the latest cure for cancer. The faculty at the lower ranked schools only teach. The faculty at the top ranked schools compete on finding the cure for cancer. And, as I always used to remark, if one is working on finding the cure to cancer, then please do not “waste” time teaching. The faculty member is more valuable to society and the profession pursuing research. Any teaching by such faculty members is better focussed by mentoring PhD students working on their teams.
I realize that the above example is extreme. But it helps make the point. Undoubtedly, no one in business schools is working on anything even remotely as important as the cure for cancer. So one should expect all business school faculty to spend at least some time in the classroom with students. In my case, the remaining time was spent on research and the efficient teaching load helped me write seven books in my ten years at London Business School. Besides the books, there were eight appearances in Harvard Business Review as well as cases and other academic papers. In addition, on average, one day a week was devoted to being on corporate boards and consulting as per the contract. This helped bring real world experience into the classroom as well as make a few bucks. The point here is not to recite my CV but to demonstrate the allocation of time by a faculty member.
Over the years, I have invited scores of executives to present in my classes. The response from the students was overwhelmingly positive. They loved executives telling them stories from the organizations. Since one only selects executives to speak from the leading organizations, Google and Facebook were two of my favourites in recent years, these sessions are set up for success. Who would not want to know what Google or Facebook are thinking. Alternatively, you have a dynamic speaker with a great product launch or successful turnaround story.
Yet, one must be careful with this approach. The executives were excellent at presenting their story, or “what they did”. But, poor at articulating why the results occurred. Usually, success was attributed to apple pie and motherhood statements such as people, culture, leadership and strategy. Yet the same strategy may not be transferable to another context, company, industry or time.
In general, we are not taught to think of causation in a critical manner unless trained to do so. This is what great doctoral programs do, regardless of the discipline. Research faculty are experts at elaborating the moderating conditions under which a particular variable is likely to lead to success or failure.
Why are Indians in USA so successful?
For example, recently, I was forwarded the following video which documents the remarkable success of Indians in USA. The hosts explain this via the usual tautological cultural explanations of Indians having better work ethic, higher emphasis on education, and greater propensity to become entrepreneurs.
However, I found a more thoughtful analysis of this extraordinary performance. A review of the book “The Other One Percent: Indians in America” (authored by Chakravorty, Kapur and Singh) in the Financial Times by James Crabtree revealed the “triple selection” argument for the success of Indians in USA:
“First, those arriving were drawn from the upper strata of Indian society, and especially its upper castes. Second, they were products of exacting Indian academic institutions, often with skills in engineering and computer science. Finally, they were thinned out by US immigration rules, which favoured clever students and skilled workers. Indian Americans have been selected to be outliers.”
Voila! That explains why we do not see the same levels of overperformance by Indians in other countries, especially where they migrated as indentured labour.
The responsibility of faculty is to debunk widely held myths and simplistic causal inferences through research, reflection, analytical rigor, and data. And, this process helps develop a more nuanced and complex understanding of how the world works.
Nirmalya Kumar is Visiting Professor of Marketing at London Business School & Distinguished Fellow, Emerging Markets Institute at INSEAD. As an author, Nirmalya has written six books, the latest being Brand Breakout: How Emerging Market Brands Will Go Global. Having ranked on the Thinkers50 every 2 years since 2011, he was also awarded the Global Village Award for contributing the most to the business community’s understanding of globalisation and the new frontiers established by emerging markets.