In a remarkably shoddy example of anti-market propaganda emanating from the Nottingham Business School, the Economist runs a screed that starts out with the debatable but reasonable premise that business leaders exaggerate their omniscience. It somehow ends up with the unsupported conclusion that business schools should abandon economics, finance, and the pursuit of profit for the cant trio of “sustainability,” “social responsibility,” and “leadership for all not for the few.”
The crude equivocating shifts from intellectual humility to moral humility to altruism would qualify for an F in any class on composition, much less philosophy. The vague assertions about “business excess” (entirely unsupported or even defined), the implicit attribution of these excesses to the teachings of business schools (ditto), and the wild leap at the end (replacing business school education with an agora-like setting in which sophists mingle with scientists and philosophers with philistines to figure out what are “social needs”), all conduce to a massive loss of reader brain cells per sentence. This article might be useful as a sort of mine detector–anyone who finds it congenial is best separated from responsibility for educating or commenting on business or economic issues.
I recently discovered I am an academic fraud. Now, I am sure there must be people out there whose immediate response is “of course you are”, “knew it” or “I am not surprised”, but I was.
Admittedly, what amounts to fraud when publishing as an academic isn’t always entirely clear to me – which, to some,will probably suffice to consider me suspect already (if not guilty-till-proven-innocent). I do get the extremes: If one writes up a truly new academic study giving the full account of the research underlying it, it ain’t fraud. If you make up the data – emulating the now infamous Diederik Stapel – it is. But sometimes in between, I am not always sure… Let me give you a few potential examples.
- Earlier this month, at the Editorial Board Meeting of the Academy of Management Journal, the editor reported that the journal would now start screening every submitted article for plagiarism. The software turns up whether parts of the text have been copied from earlier publications, including articles by the same author (in a case of self-plagiarism). After this, a fellow board member asked “can we access the same software to pre-screen our own articles before submitting them?” There wasn’t a murmur or hint of discontent in the room following this question, but I found it strange and uneasy. If you copy a piece of text, then pre-screen it and the software tells you you would be found out, you rewrite it a bit plugging in a few synonyms here and there and then it is ok and no longer considered fraud and plagiarism?!
- Geert Hofstede, one of the most highly cited social scientists ever (citations are considered a signal of “impact” in our academic world, and I seem to remember him once telling me that he had more citations than Karl Marx…), became famous for developing dimensions of national cultural differences. He published these dimensions left-right-and-centre – in academic journals, magazines and books – which greatly contributed to their and his exposure. He nowadays would be covered in tar and feathers and chased out of the ivory tower for self-plagiarism?
- Situation A: PhD student A copies a paragraph leading up to one of his hypotheses from a working paper by someone else he found on the web, without citation. Situation B: PhD student B copies a summary of a previously published academic article from a third, published paper that summarised the same article. Situation C: likewise, but with a citation to that third article, but no quotation marks. Situation D: likewise, but with citation and quotation marks. Who should get kicked out of the programme? At London Business School we have already dealt with situations A and B (the students were chased out), and D of course, but I am left wondering what we’d do in situation C.
- An academic – and an obvious fan of the Matthew Effect – buys 20,000 followers on Twitter. Yes, if you didn’t know, buying (fake) twitter followers is possible and easy. In fact, yesterday, I learned it is as cheap as chips. Yesterday, the Sunday Times covered the tale of an aspiring English celebrity who bought about 20,000 followers on Twitter to boost her profile. It just cost her a few hundred pounds/dollars. And, in fact, it sort of worked; she did raise her profile. But when she was found out – which isn’t actually that easy – she was ridiculed and quickly chased back to the dubious and crowded ranks of the British B-celebrities. But what would we do? How would we react to an academic buying 20,000 “followers”? Tar and feathers or applause for bringing the Matthew Effect to practice?
I am – apparently – a shameless self-plagiarising fraud because I sometimes get approached by business magazines who say “we read your blog post X and would like to republish it in our magazine”. And if they’re half decent (even by business magazine standards), I tend to say “yes”… In fact, I sometimes make the suggestion myself; when some magazine asks me “would you like to write an article on X for our wonderful magazine?” I usually say “no (way), but chapter X from my book would suit you well. Feel free to republish that”. Some acknowledge it was previously published; some don’t.
And, frankly, I don’t really care, and I will probably do it again. If it is my work, my copy-right, the magazine is fully aware of it, and it doesn’t harm the reader (they will know if they’ve seen it before, and otherwise they probably didn’t, or they might suffer from an enviable dose of business magazine amnesia), I won’t fear or dodge the tar and feathers. In fact, who knows, you may have read this very same post before!
By now, you may be getting sick of reading articles and blog posts about the crisis in higher education. This post is different. It proposes an explanation of why students have been willing to pay more and more for undergraduate and professional degrees at the same time that these degrees are becoming both less scarce and more dumbed down. And that explanation rests on a simple and plausible economic hypothesis.
This online education thing seems to be picking up steam: Stanford Professors Daphne Koller & Andrew Ng Also Launching a Massive Online Learning Startup. The missing piece is still certification. Once that exists, bricks-and-mortar delivery of higher ed will face some nasty competition … and we’ve seen how people feel about BaM — just ask Best Buy, Borders, or Blockbuster.
Of course, retail shopping is not the same thing as getting educated. There are similarities. For example, BaM is expensive and inconvenient in both cases. Also, in both cases, the younger generations are extremely comfortable with the online technology. Yet, it’s the differences that should be most concerning. Education-on-demand has the potential to solve many problems. This feature will be highly appealing to most potential students. Even more threatening to the traditional model: the price of online education taught by professors from top schools is not just lower by the savings in BaM distribution costs — it’s zero. Think about that – zero.
Most of the colleagues with whom I discuss these developments argue that there is simply no substitute for the real-time, in-person, interactions available in the traditional classroom setting. They believe that this will continue to motivate students to pay a premium for the experience. I wonder. It is not obvious to me that students get some special utility premium from classroom interactions. Ask yourself this: do your students consider “cold-calling” a welcome feature of sitting in your class? In my judgment, most students would actually pay to avoid it.
Besides the assessment problem, there is another hurdle for the online education model. Clearly, no professor can answer the specific questions of 100,000 students. The online institutions are going to have to find a way to staff some form of virtual office hours in which students can get answers to their questions. My sense is that there is plenty of well-trained talent in India to staff office hours for these courses. Heck, in ten years, online course providers will be able to pick up highly experienced, unemployed domestic PhDs to man the chat rooms on the cheap.
If you want to see just where the MBA business may soon be heading, read this – just in from Balkinization (HT: Instapundit): The Law School Crunch Is Here–Finances and Quality to Suffer. New numbers released by LSAC show applicants to law school for 2012 are down in every region of the US vs. previous year, with the majority experiencing drops of 15%-20%. Enrollment is also dropping – 2012 may see the lowest enrollments since the 1990s (from 52,000 enrolled in accredited programs two years ago to a possible 43,000 this year). With such a precipitous enrollment drop comes low quality students and severe financial difficulties. The bad news is that even at these low numbers, the number of graduates far outstrips the number of available jobs. Tamanaha estimates the equilibrium number of first year enrollments to be around 35,000. The good news is hard to find.
The law school industry appears to lead its b-school counterpart by a few years. Many of the trends affecting law schools – the most salient being the discouraging cost/benefit ratio facing prospective students – are also affecting graduate business schools. The lag between the two may be due to the fact that, for law schools, the immediate value of a law degree is much more transparent. One cannot be a lawyer without a law degree and the only purpose in having a law degree is to become a lawyer. When the bottom falls out of the market for lawyers, one would expect it to fall out of the market for law education in short order. Since MBAs are, ostensibly, useful in any business endeavor, the connection between the education and practitioner markets is less obvious.
That said, business schools face other challenges. For example, law schools still provide an important certification function and, as such, have presumably retained a requisite level of educational content. This maintains their position as a necessary link in the professional chain. Business school educational content, on the other hand, has been on a downward glide path ever since the advent of Business Week surveys in the late 80s (and the Northwestern response innovation to treat students as “customers”). With no objective certification requirement, b-schools have been free to dumb down the education, admit large numbers of questionably-qualified-but-able-to-write-a-check students, and increase activities that have little to do with learning (e.g., social networking). Simultaneously, we see the stirrings of competition from untraditional sources, such as high quality schools in Europe, China and India (previously a growth segment of the domestic MBA education market), free online courses from top schools such as MIT and Stanford, and alternative forms of education (such as E[enstitute]‘s apprenticeship approach). These differences suggest that the bottom, when we hit it, may be worse than that for law schools.
During a discussion of these developments the other day, a young colleague objected to (what he interpreted as) my Cassandra-like apocalypticism on this topic. The objection was misplaced. I do believe the market for MBAs is going to get a lot tougher in the near- to mid-term – perhaps catastrophically so for programs outside the first tier. In the long-term, however, the turbulence is going to force our institutions … wait, I mean us, the faculties … to revise our business and educational models to compete effectively. The reason to start thinking about the bad-news scenarios now is to prepare. So, when the crunch comes, clear-thinking colleagues can step up to implement successful responses. In my judgment, the market for business education is going to become much more fragmented and diversified. This strikes me as a good thing, with one winning strategy being to take the research-education link and its attending certification role seriously once again. And, that, in my opinion, would be a wonderful development.
This is the answer to those who think we will keep our research-based MBAs above water by making the curriculum more “relevant in the real world” … by which people seem to mean sacrificing academic content for: external projects with business sponsors, “living” case studies, 1st summer internships, support services for personal grooming, etc. As I have long argued, research faculty are not efficient providers of substitute “real world” experiences.
Apropos this discussion, last week, E[nstitute] launched in NYC by founders Kane Sarhan and Shaila Ittycheria. The idea is to pick up promising candidates with a high school diploma and put them through a two-year apprenticeship program mentored by some of NYC’s top entrepreneurs. Impressive.
And, it isn’t just business schools this program threatens — in a recent article, Brad Mcarty, editor at Insider points out, “… the average public university (in the US) will set you back nearly $80,000 for a 4-year program. And a private school will cost in excess of $150,000. At the end of that time, you have a bellybutton,” he writes. “Oh sure, you might have a piece of paper that says you have a Bachelor of Science or Art degree but what you actually have is something that has become so ubiquitous that it’s really not worth much more than the lint inside your own navel.”
That’s strong stuff and, sadly, uncomfortably close to the truth. Moreover, it speaks to strong potential demand for apprenticeship-style entrepreneurship programs like the one mentioned above. Personally, I think it’s terrific. The existence of programs like this create more value at the society level. From the b-school foxhole, they also force research-based MBA providers to think more carefully about what, if any, comparative advantage we have vis the many non-traditional competitors we now see invading our industry.
Hint: the answer will have to involve our research. This is what we do. And, contrary to the whining and hand-wringing of so many traditional MBA providers, teaching young people cutting-edge general principles (i.e., research-based knowledge) has substantial market value. We just stopped doing it a couple of decades ago.
The drumbeat continues: MIT launches free onine “fully automated” course. Aside from the fact that these innovations have major implications for the livelihoods of my friends and I, the economics are interesting per se.
With the elimination of capacity constraints on the distribution side, will brick-and-mortar education providers go the way of Blockbuster and Borders? The market does not like brick-and-morter. It is inefficient – costly and inconvenient.
What happens when one professor can serve the entire market? Will superstars play an even larger role in academia? Will there be a market for top researchers (scarce) or good teachers (less so)? The same question holds at the institution level. Will everyone get a degree (and work for) HBS one day?
UPDATE: Megan McArdle provides a more thoughtful essay on this event at the Atlantic.
Here it is: MIT Announces Platform for Free Online Courses
MIT is planning to launch an open platform for free online classes, complete with certification for those who demonstrate mastery of their topics.
The key part of that sentence is the, “complete with certification” bit. I have to admit, that came faster than even I expected. As many who read this site will know, MIT has been running the OpenCourseWare site for 10 years which, according to this article, boasts 2,100 courses and has been used by 100 million people. Offering actual courses with instructor interaction and evaluation is new.
In related news, my good friend Scott Page (Leonid Hurwicz Professor of Complex Systems at Michigan) is going to teach a free online course on modeling in January that presently has over 10,000 people signed up. I understand the free online course in Technology Entrepreneurship being offered in Jan. by Stanford’s Chuck Eesley beats that by a factor of 3+. A couple of days ago, I commented to a colleague, “Well, when they figure out how to add the certification function, we’re in trouble.”
It is now official: we’re in trouble. In case it is not obvious, let me explain why. This technology removes a significant number of capacity constraints. Now, basically every student interested in, e.g., technology entrepreneurship can sign up for a course offered by one of the best researchers and most outstanding teachers at one of the world’s the top business schools … and obtain evidence of having completed it satisfactorily. Admittedly, the certification is not, for the moment, what it needs to be. For example, my guess is that verification of who is actually being assessed is not airtight. However, this technology will certainly evolve. At that point, why does Stanford need an admissions policy? Just let everyone who wants to take a shot at learning enroll and, then, let the chips fall where they may. Let’s face it, admissions procedures are notoriously inaccurate anyway.
Here’s a prediction about what will happen in the near future. With places like Stanford and MIT racking up tens of thousands of students for their free online courses, top-tier wannabes will have to follow suit. I can pretty much guarantee that sometime soon your dean will figure out that having thousands of students enrolled in your free online courses will be a necessary component of marketing the bricks-and-mortar program. The fear will be that schools that don’t offer such programs won’t be taken seriously. And, ultimately, I think, that fear will be well-founded. Also, given the fact that every university enjoys government subsidies of some kind or another, there will be major political pressure to provide the social good of low-cost, open access courses.
Then, eventually, the marketing device will actually become the core educational product. What will that wold be like? Will we see Stanford or HBS or Chicago become the Amazon.com of MBA education? At p = 0 pricing, does everyone but a few super-programs go out of business? If so, would that have the perverse effect of turning university-based b-schools into pure, state-supported research institutions?
Folks have long argued whether MBA education is more about learning things versus providing aspiring business managers with a signaling device (see, e.g., Ezra Zuckerman’s comments to my related post over at orgtheory.net) . If I had to make a conjecture, at least for the medium-term, I believe that the online course technology is going to make the split between the signaling and actual learning functions more pronounced. The bricks-and-mortar programs will be all about signaling and the online courses will be mostly about learning content. In their refined role, the bricks-and-mortar MBA will continue to be pricey and even more about being accepted into one’s aspirational social network, much like the private mens clubs of the 18th and 19th centuries. At the same time, those who are interested in learning graduate-level business content will be able to do so at relatively little cost online (though, this too will serve as a signal in its own right and may even be a requirement to admission to the social club, er, full-time MBA program).
What happens in the long-run is less obvious. After all, once the local, full-time MBA experience becomes pure signaling and social networking, it will face numerous substitutes. After all, there are lots of ways to burn money … and bona fide social clubs still exist. What then?
Finally, there is the question of what happens to the business research community? While I can easily imagine a superstars market evolving, in which the Scott Pages and Chuck Eesleys of the world educate a massive share of the market, I also see an educational role for those doing relevant, state-of-the-art research. Those of us who manage to establish international research reputations are, almost by definition, in possession of scarce, valuable knowledge. Therefore, I am reasonably optimistic that most of us will continue to make a living doing some facsimile of our present jobs. Whether richer or leaner, I can’t say — the monetization model of the future is opaque.
Here is the headline from Financial Times editor Della Bradshaw: From the editor: Trouble at the top. “A spate of deans’ departures raises questions about the way they were appointed,” writes Bradshaw. The examples given in the article are the short tenures of Robin Buchanan at LBS, John Wells at IMD, and Frank Brown at Insead. The basic gist of the article is that these examples illustrate bad governance practices at non-university-based schools. What’s bad? Well, according to Ms. Bradshaw, too much faculty involvement in the Dean selection process.
Of course, most US and UK university-based business schools follow a straightforward system in which the president (US) or vice-chancellor (UK) appoints the dean of the business school based on recommendations from a search committee or firm. Presidents hire and only presidents can fire.
But, at non-university schools, faculty meddling is allowed to a shocking degree …
It is hard to imagine any other organisation – commercial or academic – allowing the workers to effectively decide who will be their new boss. When the FT is next looking for an editor, will jobbing journalists be asked to vote?
Can you imagine?!
I’m not quite sure where to begin with this. But, let me try. First, Bradshaw cites no evidence that these short tenures were bad outcomes. Rather, they may be the kind of flexible, timely, and appropriate decisions that schools should make upon learning that the new Dean is a dud. Managing a research-based business school is a tricky endeavor. On the one hand, a Dean needs to have the management chops to run an organization constrained (yes, constrained) by insanely dense complementarities between policy variables. On the other hand, he or she also needs to understand the research world, both in order to construct a sensible educational vision as well as to manage faculty resources. The problem is that each of these skill sets typically takes a career to develop and, hence, are rarely co-occurrent in a single individual. Perhaps we should be surprised that the rate of Dean turnover isn’t higher.
Second, it appears that Ms. Bradshaw has never heard of a governance form called the “partnership.” Traditionally, faculty have been run along the lines of a partnership, much the same as in law firms and consulting practices … and for most of the same reasons (aligning decision rights with inherently decentralized information and creating effective incentives). True, the partnership model for b-school governance has been greatly degraded in recent years. In its place, we now have the corporate-style administration. This modern administrative form — untethered from from faculty oversight — is, in the parlance of our times, a bug and not feature. Treating faculty as mere “workers” (or, worse, as a frustrating “problem” to be sidestepped whenever possible) results in misaligned decision rights and incentives, which then contribute to undesirable behaviors like: the mindless chasing of rankings put out by popular business periodicals; expanding capacity to what may be an unsustainable level; the dumbing down of graduate business education; and, a shocking rate of tuition inflation. This is why, whenever I hear university administrators refer to themselves as “The Senior Management Team” (typically, embedded within some self-congratulatory announcement), it really makes my skin crawl.
By the way, in terms of her own experience, Ms. Bradshaw was an English teacher before joining the FT, where she has served as a journalist for the past 20 years. As far as I can ascertain, her experience includes neither scholarly research nor business unit management. She has been involved in the FT rankings since their inception in the 1990s. Think on that.
The fraud of Diederik Stapel – professor of social psychology at Tilburg University in the Netherlands – was enormous. His list of publications was truly impressive, both in terms of the content of the articles as well as its sheer number and the prestige of the journals in which it was published: dozens of articles in all the top psychology journals in academia with a number of them in famous general science outlets such as Science. His seemingly careful research was very thorough in terms of its research design, and was thought to reveal many intriguing insights about fundamental human nature. The problem was, he had made it all up…
For years – so we know now – Diederik Stapel made up all his data. He would carefully reiterature, design all the studies (with his various co-authors), set up the experiments, print out all the questionnaires, and then, instead of actually doing the experiments and distributing the questionnaires, made it all up. Just like that.
He finally got caught because, eventually, he did not even bother anymore to really make up newly faked data. He used the same (fake) numbers for different experiments, gave those to his various PhD students to analyze, who then in disbelief slaving away in their adjacent cubicles discovered that their very different experiments led to exactly the same statistical values (a near impossibility). When they compared their databases, there was substantial overlap. There was no denying it any longer; Diederik Stapel, was making it up; he was immediately fired by the university, admitted to his lengthy fraud, and handed back his PhD degree.
In an open letter, sent to Dutch newspapers to try to explain his actions, he cited the huge pressures to come up with interesting findings that he had been under, in the publish or perish culture that exist in the academic world, which he had been unable to resist, and which led him to his extreme actions.
There are various things I find truly remarkable and puzzling about the case of Diederik Stapel.
- The first one is the sheer scale and (eventually) outright clumsiness of his fraud. It also makes me realize that there must be dozens, maybe hundreds of others just like him. They just do it a little bit less, less extreme, and are probably a bit more sophisticated about it, but they’re subject to the exact same pressures and temptations as Diederik Stapel. Surely others give in to them as well. He got caught because he was flying so high, he did it so much, and so clumsily. But I am guessing that for every fraud that gets caught, due to hubris, there are at least ten other ones that don’t.
- The second one is that he did it at all. Of course because it is fraud, unethical, and unacceptable, but also because it sort of seems he did not really need it. You have to realize that “getting the data” is just a very small proportion of all the skills and capabilities one needs to get published. You have to really know and understand the literature; you have to be able to carefully design an experiment, ruling out any potential statistical biases, alternative explanations, and other pitfalls; you have to be able to write it up so that it catches people’s interest and imagination; and you have to be able to see the article through the various reviewers and steps in the publication process that every prestigious academic journal operates. Those are substantial and difficult skills; all of which Diederik Stapel possessed. All he did is make up the data; something which is just a small proportion of the total set of skills required, and something that he could have easily outsourced to one of his many PhD students. Sure, you then would not have had the guarantee that the experiment would come out the way you wanted them, but who knows, they could.
- That’s what I find puzzling as well; that at no point he seems to have become curious whether his experiments might actually work without him making it all up. They were interesting experiments; wouldn’t you at some point be tempted to see whether they might work…?
- Truly amazing I also find the fact that he never stopped. It seems he has much in common with Bernard Madoff and his Ponzi Scheme, or the notorious traders in investments banks such as 827 million Nick Leeson, who brought down Barings Bank with his massive fraudulent trades, Societe Generale’s 4.9 billion Jerome Kerviel, and UBS’s 2.3 billion Kweku Adoboli. The difference: Stapel could have stopped. For people like Madoff or the rogue traders, there was no way back; once they had started the fraud there was no stopping it. But Stapel could have stopped at any point. Surely at some point he must have at least considered this? I guess he was addicted; addicted to the status and aura of continued success.
- Finally, what I find truly amazing is that he was teaching the Ethics course at Tilburg University. You just don’t make that one up; that’s Dutch irony at its best.
A lot of alternative ways for teaching strategy seem to be emerging. I recently, for example, ran into a cartoon series that tries to teach basic concepts of strategy: Atlas Black: Managing to Succeed (there’s even a movie trailer, here’s the WSJ story: can b-school students learn from cartoons?). Cartoons and strategy, really?
Hmm. I have to say that everything in me resists reducing strategic and organizational knowledge to cartoons, seems to really cheapen the field. I’m sure they are not meant as stand-alone materials – but still. To put my Mike hat on – are there equivalent cartoons to teach the hard sciences, say, physics? And, at what level can you teach something via cartoons? Obviously the intended audience matters – a lot.
There’s also a strategy novel – written by Jay Barney and Trish Clifford:What I Didn’t Learn in Business School: How Strategy Work in the Real World. I haven’t read it – though am curious and plan on getting to it sometime soon.
If any readers have already read it – leave a comment.
Fast Company has an article on Why do b-schools teach the 4ps of marketing when three are dead?
This raises a broader question about a whole host of concepts that are seemingly “dead” but still taught at business schools. For example, should we still be teaching Porter’s five forces, industry analysis? Or, Ezra Zuckerman raises the question about why CAPM is still taught (in response to Mike’s post at orgtheory.net).
Here are some reasons why dead ideas might still be taught at business schools:
- naivete – professors not admitting or knowing that the ideas indeed are dead.
- it’s in the textbook.
- perhaps a legitimate effort to teach the history of the field, including dead ideas.
- so students don’t make the mistakes implied by dead ideas and models.