Earlier this summer, Professor John Thornton, the head of Bangor Business School, made what some considered to be a provocative statement in an interview with the Times Higher Educational Supplement.

Commenting on his department’s impact on the regional economy, he said “I’m not going to kid you and say we’re hugely involved in the local economy; hardly any university is…We employ academics. They don’t know anything about day-to-day business management.”

I am sure that many businesses in North Wales, if they read his comments, would be wondering what is the relevance of a business school if it isn’t supporting local firms, especially in upskilling the management skills of executives and staff. Some would also be wondering whether why such comments were made given the heavy investment of millions of pounds by European Structural Funds into the Management Centre as a resource for supporting local businesses?

But Professor Thornton's observations would strike a chord with some business academics and it is not surprising that there has been some debate over the last few years as to whether business schools are actually losing their relevance to the business community. Indeed, if they are not producing graduates with the right skills and competences to help organisations to achieve their full potential, then what are they for?

Given this, it is worth examining a recent report from the Hult International Business School which, unlike Bangor, was ranked by the Financial Times as one of the top 100 Business Schools in 2014.

Entitled “The Future of Business Education and the Needs of Employers”, its study interviewed executives, managers and academics to try and understand their perspectives on the current state of business education.

The overall conclusion was that business schools could do a much better job of producing graduates with the right combinations of skills for employers. This is something that most of us working within the sector would not disagree with although the more detailed findings may cause some discomfort.

First of all, employers suggested that many business schools and their key programmes such as the Master of Business Administration (MBA) are better structured for the industrial revolution rather than the digital age.

By keeping to traditional grading systems, fixed assignment structures, outdated syllabi and case studies, employers felt that business school students are regurgitating old knowledge rather than learning valuable new skills that can make a difference to businesses.

Secondly, the report suggested that business schools don’t place enough emphasis on building critical skills and abilities that are actually needed by employers. These include having comfort with ambiguity, uncertainty and failure, as well as exhibiting strong communication skills in both written and verbal forms.

Business graduates should be also be taught effective teamworking players in today’s increasingly collaborative, global workplace, how to interact successfully with people from different cultures and the methods to adhere to ethical principles in the workplace.

Finally, it is critical that graduates should be armed with more creative approaches on how to tackle challenges of all sizes in unique ways and (given that few business schools teach this) strong sales skills including learning how to pitch, persuade, and obtain buy-in from internal and external stakeholders.

Another criticism of business schools from this report is that they continue to overemphasise theory and should instead concentrate more on simulating real-world experiences.

Some employers even recommended that the amount of management theory in traditional areas such as accounting, finance and marketing should be reduced in favour of work-related skills. This is not something I would necessarily agree with as strong management knowledge is key to any business education, although I understand the argument that an overemphasis on theory can result in very few students getting the opportunity to actually practice the skills they need to succeed in the workplace.

Therefore, one of the key recommendations from the report is that students need more exposure to real-world situations throughout their education. This can include getting involved in entrepreneurial start-ups or solving a real world consultancy project for an external client.

And whilst developing such learning experiences can be time-consuming and difficult for institutions to implement, there is no doubt that they can be of enormous benefit to students prior to employment.

The dean of one of the top business schools in Europe recently said that “the ultimate goal of business schools…is to produce responsible leaders who can deal with an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world”.

Ensuring that those who attend business schools are not only given high quality management knowledge but also practical business experience is probably one of the best ways in which such responsible leaders can be developed. Indeed, adopting this approach can give those business schools a sustained competitive edge in the marketplace as compared to a more traditional management education.

More importantly, in becoming more relevant to the management needs of local firms, even those business schools that are reluctant to make any proactive attempt to engage with local companies could, perhaps to the surprise of their heads, end up making a significant impact on the competitiveness of the business communities in which they are based.

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