The Space Between Academe and Practice

The Space Between Academe and Practice

What happens when we combine the strengths of business schools with the dynamic capabilities of business?

It’s time to move beyond the pendulum metaphor in business education. In this familiar story, business schools have gone too far in their quest to earn academic respect. They have become less relevant to business practice, producing academic journal articles rarely read by practicing managers and graduates who are unable to “hit the ground running” in the so-called real world. Closing the gap means swinging the pendulum back, returning to a more practical orientation in business education.

My complaint about the pendulum metaphor is that it suggests a trade-off, giving up hard-earned academic respect for practical relevance. Instead, what if we imagine combining the strengths of business schools with the dynamic capabilities of business? The challenge becomes less about closing a gap and more about filling one with new initiatives, in which academics and practitioners are collaborating to co-create knowledge, co-develop talent, and co-invest in our communities.

In fact, AACSB is calling on business schools to “cultivate a position at the intersection of academe and practice” in pursuing the five opportunities in its Collective Vision for Business Education. Business education will be more innovative as a consequence. I believe some of the more interesting innovations will fall into one or more of the following categories:

1. Pedagogies and projects that integrate learning and impact

Major management mistakes and failures can be career killers in practice but can seem almost inconsequential in academic courses. Business and business schools are collaborating to develop new pedagogies and projects that have more impact. Most apparently, we’re seeing more field projects designed to facilitate learning while crafting solutions to interesting business problems. Once reserved for capstone strategy courses, field projects have been popping up earlier and more frequently throughout the curriculum. One of my favorites is “Analytics in the Wild” at the Rady School of Management at the University of California San Diego, in which students take in mounds of messy data to analyze and, hopefully, discover new insights for the business providing it.

We’re also seeing more learning laboratories, simulations, and incubators emerge in the space between academe and practice. Each enables students to more readily see and feel the impact of their management decisions and behaviors. And case studies, a long-time staple in moving from theory to application, are becoming more realistic and interactive—posing real-time challenges, providing for immediate feedback, and increasing engagement through gamification.

2. More diverse participants in business research and education

More diverse groups of people are being brought together at the intersection of academe and practice. Some scholars are starting to work closely with practitioners, combining research expertise and experience to co-create new knowledge. In its 2013 Accreditation Standards, AACSB introduced new classifications that recognize the contributions of scholars that augment their knowledge through practice, as well as practitioners who build on their experience through scholarship. Academics and practitioners are forming learning communities—often across disciplines, including medicine, engineering, public policy, and law—to investigate current problems and develop solutions.

Schools are connecting alumni to current students, not only as more experienced mentors but also to extend their own education and networks beyond graduation. Some schools invite recent graduates, entrepreneurs who started businesses, to mentor and learn from undergraduate students interested in doing the same. Business schools are also engaging more venture capitalists and angel investors as they become catalysts for innovation and new business creation. Finally, students and professors are joining together with policy makers and activists to address important societal issues such as sustainability, inequality, and corruption.

3. New data and information to support business education

Focusing on the intersection between business and business schools will give rise to new forms of data and analytics to support business education improvement. We are creating more and more data that can be applied to measure and enhance learning, research, and organizational performance. By working with business, can we develop new ways to track the learning activities of students and graduates, assisting talent development professionals in companies, as well as leaders in business schools? This will be especially important as the boundaries between degree and non-degree education, as well as between formal and informal learning, continue to blur.

Businesses are also demanding more transparency about the competencies attained in degree-based education. How can schools work with businesses to develop digital portfolios to capture and present evidence of the competencies that recruiters are seeking? And, as more coursework goes online, we will produce even more data about learning that can be valuable to both business and business education. I see big data generated by learning activities as an important source of innovation in higher education.

AACSB’s new Co-Lab Conference (June 13–14, 2016) in Atlanta will explore these and other models in which business schools collaborate with business. It is designed for academic leaders and for business leaders who want to improve their company’s performance in recruiting and developing talent, build partnerships with business schools, and increase their positive impact on communities.

Taken as a whole, the innovations occurring in the space between academe and practice will ultimately transform business education. They will continue to obscure the boundaries between business and business schools, making these groups even more interdependent. They will help redefine the rules of talent recruitment and retention, knowledge creation and dissemination, and community engagement. They will help business schools move beyond long-established academic traditions and into the collaborate spaces of a more creative, engaged society.

Dan LeClair is focused on strategy and innovation in business education. You can follow him on Twitter @DrLeClair.