A Stronger Connection Between Business Education and Practice

AACSB’s initiative to reinforce the connection between business education and practice is about leveraging the strengths of both to create more value—in business and in business education.

In a little more than a month, AACSB will hold its second annual Co-Lab conference. Hosted by the Haas School of Business at the University of California Berkeley, this event addresses challenges at the intersection between business and business schools, such as rethinking the talent pipeline, advancing business analytics, catalyzing social impact, redefining executive education, building research ecosystems, and more. Co-Lab is part of a larger AACSB initiative to connect business education and practice—an initiative that is brought into sharper focus by recounting AACSB’s earlier efforts and clarifying what it means (and doesn’t mean) as we move forward.


For more than half a century AACSB has reinforced the academic foundations of business education. Pushing mostly in one direction, AACSB built an accreditation framework that encouraged and enabled business schools to invest in PhD faculty and research, as well as invent and augment high-quality degree programs—many of which have been enormously popular. A vast, supportive ecosystem emerged, along with evaluation and reward structures that brought everything into alignment. The result has been impressive, with many business schools now enjoying significantly stronger academic reputations on campus and beyond. By most accounts the movement continues around the globe.

Unfortunately, significant gaps surfaced in the wake of this success, especially between academia and practice, and these gaps have limited the development and impact of business education. The academic rise of business schools has made it more difficult to stay abreast of and act swiftly in an environment that has become more uncertain and volatile. By now there is little disagreement that business schools need to be more actively engaged with practice in order to achieve their full potential. Fortunately, many business schools have already taken steps to strengthen their connections, and AACSB has made supporting these efforts a major priority.

AACSB Initial Efforts

AACSB’s initiative to strengthen the connection between academia and practice began in 2006 with a report called Business and Business Schools: A Partnership for the Future, which was issued by a task force called the Alliance of Management Education. The report inspired AACSB to create its Business Practices Council (BPC) in response to the task force recommendation to “establish a permanent structure where the mutual interests of business schools are specifically addressed.”

Starting with the premise that accreditation plays an important role in aligning business education with the changing expectations of business, the Blue Ribbon Committee on Accreditation Quality (BRC) that wrote the 2013 standards aimed to, among other things, boost business school engagement with practice. The committee introduced a new section on “engagement,” which stresses the importance of experiential learning and executive education, as well as faculty qualifications. AACSB introduced criteria for “scholar practitioners” and “practice academics” as distinctive, and valued, types of faculty members.

In addition to the Co-Lab conference, AACSB started a “bridge” program to assist executives in transitioning to business schools and began inviting executives to contribute to curriculum development seminars in a variety subjects, such as data analytics. We developed programs to highlight new ways that business schools are engaging business practice. Take, for example, our Innovations That Inspire challenge, which this year highlighted several innovative approaches to engaging practice.

On the heels of these and other projects, AACSB has begun to roll out a new brand identity that highlights the organization’s role in making business education much more connected. It reflects the initial progress that has been made and signals a higher level of commitment by AACSB to “foster engagement” with practice.

Clarifying AACSB's Commitment

We have learned a lot from our research and initial experience. There are, for example, mental models that have stood in the way of change. Last year I wrote in “The Space Between Academe and Practice” that the pendulum metaphor has not been very useful for understanding the relationship between academic and practical orientations of business schools. The pendulum implies a tradeoff, that business schools cannot, for example, increase relevance without sacrificing some rigor.

Rather than compromising our scholarly values, connecting with practice requires a stronger commitment to them. In 2008, AACSB’s Impact of Research Task Force was clear in its report that “[t]he value proposition for business school-based research rests on three important foundations: independence, rigor, and cross-fertilization.” Independence supports objectivity, rigor supports reliability and validity, cross-fertilization supports originality—all three combined offer credibility and the type of research that can’t be replicated in business. The task force went on to say,

A business school cannot separate itself from practice to focus only on theory and still serve its function. On the other hand, it cannot be so focused on practice that it fails to support development insights into principles and theories that serve to increase understanding of practice. Indeed the potential to have impact, i.e., to change the way people and organizations behave, on both practice and theory sets business schools apart from competing institutions.

In connecting business schools to business practice, AACSB intends to remain unwavering in supporting objective, high-quality business and management scholarship. Business schools must continue to reinforce the independence and rigor of their research. But we also have to make this research more useful. Business practice wants and needs research that challenges the status quo and reveals what works and what does not work—and why. And we need to understand the implications of business strategies and actions for society. To do all of this, business schools must be closely connected with practice, especially in an environment that is more dynamic than ever.

Likewise, we retain the belief that business graduates should be able to think critically and creatively about management, organizations, and society. We must resist mounting pressure for more instrumental education and keep our eye on the larger context and grand challenges. First jobs matter, but not at the expense of a whole-person education. We want graduates who are willing and able to change the system for the good of society, and not just work within the system to further their own careers.

Besides the tradeoff mindset, we also have a tendency to think of practice as something that comes after academic study. We graduate, then apply what we learned in a program throughout our careers. This linear thinking positions business as a “customer” of the school, a role that neither they nor schools have ever fully accepted. AACSB is trying to think differently about its efforts to connect academia to practice. For example, we want to explore synergies in developing managerial talent over the whole career lifecycle, not just in the early stages.

This nonlinear perspective enables us to view business and management education and development along a continuum and explore the role of business schools as hubs for lifelong learning. It enables us to embrace the idea that learners are consuming education in smaller chunks, from more and more providers, and informally as well as formally over the course of their careers. It allows us to explore the development of managers and leaders as a joint effort between business schools and organizations.

Working Together

AACSB’s initiative to reinforce the connection between business education and practice is about leveraging the strengths of both to create more value—in business and in business education. It is about working together—to produce credible knowledge that is useful, to educate and develop managers and leaders over the course of their working life, and to positively impact our communities. It is about co-creating knowledge, co-developing talent, and collaborating for social impact. It is about inventing new institutions and platforms in the space between practice and academia. That means new laboratories for research. It means simulations and projects to support learning across organizations. It means programs that enable scholars to have easier access to managers and move more readily between academia and business. By working together with practice, we can catalyze innovation in business education as well as business.

Expanding business school partnerships with business will require significant changes in business schools and in the ecosystem that supports them. We will need to invent new structures to encourage and support the co-creation of knowledge. We must develop ecosystems that help to redefine the problems we study, so that we think and teach more critically about the role of business in the context of society, and restructure the way we support it. We must begin to appreciate that scholars and teachers are not and should not be viewed as a homogeneous lot; they need to be diverse in backgrounds and skills and work interdependently. All of this will stretch AACSB as it is currently structured. The future will require a more diverse network of organizations, one where the transformation of business education for global prosperity is as important to business enterprises as it is to business schools and policymakers.

Dan LeClairFollow Dan LeClair on Twitter @AACSBDan.