I work in a Business School: Shut down the Business School

Martin Parker (left) tells us in his new book, Shut Down the Business School (below right),  what we already know. We know that Business Schools are – to use that always unhelpful metaphor – cash cows – for universities the world over. They are a volume business in themselves. They also sell a product – the dream or aspiration of riches with the right formula learned at the Business School.

That definition of riches – or personal wealth – is a capitalist-managerialist one. It is one in which (let me turn this into a powerpoint presentation):

  • bosses boss and everyone else does as they are told;
  • bosses – managers – are worth more than the people who work for them (defined in salary and benefits/perks)
  • managers’ decisions are right (until they are not);
  • meeting or exceeding shareholder expectations is the purpose of firms;

Business Schools are multi-disciplinary – that is definitely a plus – and the aggregate business discipline is a social science. The disciplines, for Parker, are (pp 26-34):

  • Finance (always assuming that earning rent on capital is a legitimate and perhaps even praiseworthy activity, with skillful investors being lionized for their technical skills and success);
  • HRM (not particularly interested in what is like to be a human being);
  • Management information systems (premised on the sensible assumption that high-quality, relevant and timely information is necessary to make high-quality relevant and timely decisions, but agnostic about direction or context of the made decisions);
  • Operations management (aimed at shrinking time and space, and when successful destroys the local);
  • Accountancy (the production of different versions of the truth for different purposes);
  • Marketing (predicated on maximising the number and value of transactions within a given organisation, market or economy, promoting hyper-consumption);
  • Strategy (an attempt to predict the future and shape an organization in such a way that it profits most from what that future looks like).

Economists are spared character assassination, MBAs (the award and the award holders) are not, and there is not much that is good to be said about professional organisations such as Business School accreditation and Accountancy bodies. Government and regulators are also chastised and the universities obliquely for currying favour with them.

Of course, practitioners in these disciplines are likely to be unhappy with these characterisations. But Parker is trying to make a point and breaking a few eggs in the process. For whilst in each Business School there are scholars happily teaching to formula, many are not. He puts himself in the not category as a critical management theorist. These iconoclasts are generally tolerated in Business Schools. And successfully ignored, though their books and papers are, usually, counted in the compilations of league tables of excellence in publishing.

Where is this going?

This book follows the formula for the books that I currently read and review: tell a ghastly story of how it is, and then lead the reader to a new and enlightened future. For the Business School, Parker has a number of ideas. The marketisation of education has turned education into a product. The Business School then provides the customer – students, their parents – with what it thinks they want; namely, the formula for being a manager, creating wealth (for self and others) and “success” (judged against spurious measures).

Parker’s solution is a School for Organising; one that does not view organising and management as synonymous. There is no reason – as demonstrated in countries such as Germany – for workers and their representatives to be excluded from Executive Boards. There is no reason for firms to prioritise shareholders over employees, workers and community. There can be no justification for the raison d’etre of firms to be to externalise pollution and bring about the collapse of civilisation (which is the likely outcome of uncontrolled climate change). The “hollowed-out” state, as we witness currently (writing in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown in the UK), has left citizens vulnerable to a virus for want of Personal Protective Equipment, the provision of which in the UK was outsourced and subject to minimal inventory control, something that the managers of the supply companies and the politicians, learned in Business Schools.

The new Business School asks “How can people come together to do stuff”? (p113). What are the alternative modes of organising, both political (for example, anarchy) and business (for example, co-operatives such as wholefood wholesaler, SUMA, pp116-119)? It is truly interdisciplinary – not just within the School’s disciplines, but external, too. Other faculties such the natural sciences and humanities (art and business are very good companions). For myself and my own writing (I am writing a strategy textbook, please get in touch if you want to read it), the natural sciences are the starting point of our business courses. The planetary boundaries are the starting point for organising, not an afterthought. It is the job of the new Business School to alert students to the possibility of alternative ways of organising, evaluation and making decisions.

The disciplines ridiculed earlier are repositioned. “Accountancy is no longer about finding and hiding profits” (p169), marketing works for the people who buy things, not those who sell; operations management correctly prices carbon and other pollutants against speed and price. Economists teach de-growth or reformulate GDP in human terms.

Parker is also aware of the dangers of setting up a School for Organising. Over time, it becomes its own Business School, packed with salaried professionals with pensions detached from the people who are subject to the School’s teachings. There is a need, he argues, for de-schooling (drawn from the work of Ivan Illich), a much more co-operative approach to learning – learning being the operative word. That said, there has to be room for study – a discipline, a task – without which more bad decisions get made. De-schooling to its natural conclusion of no School at all is no panacea. The Business School is politics and politics is about power and the control of resources. There is nothing, however, to say that what the Business School teaches has to be capitalist-managerialist.

Picture: University of Leicester

 

 

 

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