EDEV_507 Week 1_4

I read (only) the Bennis and O’Toole (2005) article. To sum up, and to check my understanding, its main argument centres on the destruction of the professional curriculum in B schools due to the priority placed on promotions based on articles written that utilise the scientific method. Bennis and O’Toole would like to see a more practitioner focus because of the perception that B schools do not teach useable business skills.

To be frank, Bennis and O’Toole’s argument seems a bit confused. While they make their case strongly, they do point to major schools (e.g. Harvard B School) that have curricula that uphold their recommendations. Presumably, Harvard is an outlier in their data, but as a reader, I am left wondering how relevant their concerns really are. Furthermore, their suggestions for improvement do not reflect the current theoretical knowledge (at 2005) built up since at least Schön’s(1983) seminal work in reflexive practice. Schön (1983) recognised, as Bennis and O’Toole (2005) did, the reality of life in the “swampy lowland where situations are confusing ‘messes’ incapable of technical solution” (p. 42). Scientific research provides the mountainous peaks (to continue Schön’s metaphor), the clarity of vision resulting from abstraction, to which real-life “messy” instances are juxtaposed. It is in the tensions between academic and practical knowledge that professional learning occurs (Schön, 1983).

Furthermore, I feel that Bennis and O’Toole (2005) have misrepresented the scientific model. The reflexive practitioner has to live in the troughs, the messy swamps, to fill in the practical gaps left when models fail to account for the complexity of lifeworld practicalities. But models are, by necessity, deliberate approximations of the real world (Bakker, 2013). An exact representation (if it were even possible) would be a copy of the real world. One primary function of education is to train students in abstract thought in order for them to develop skills in judging abstractions against real-world examples. The business case study pedagogy used by Harvard is not an attempt to teach real-world examples (because if so, they would need to teach every single possibility) but as another method of abstraction and model building. The difference between scientific modelling and business modelling is, currently, the lack of focus in the latter. Bennis and O’Toole discuss physics envy, but this may be better described as the envy felt when one realises that one’s discipline is new and hasn’t built up the hundreds of years of conceptual frameworks and empirical data. Researchers cannot skip that ground work, but Bennis and O’Toole want the best of both worlds without wanting to graft the bridge between them, attacking, instead, “scholars, [who] in their own defence, argue that the gradual accumulation of tiny facts will one day accrete to a larger and more general scientific understanding of organizational behaviour” (p. 99).

I found this article interesting and thought provoking. The authors recognise the practical value of the Harvard Business Review as a practitioner magazine (Bennis & O’Toole, 2005) and argue strongly for a reconceptualisation of current B school curricula within a practitioner framework. However, their representation of the role of the scholarly practitioner seems to fall more within what Bentz and Shapiro (1998) label as “informal”;

“What distinguishes scholarly or scientific inquiry from more informal, everyday, intuitive sorts of inquiry is primarily the existence of rationally grounded procedures of creating knowledge that is accepted as reliable and valid within scholarly discourse” (1998, p. 67).

Moreover, Bennis and O’Toole seem to have a restricted view of the multifaceted role of academic publishing, criticising it as a “vast wasteland” (p. 99). A brief look at the contents in Yates (2004) reveals a much richer potential for academic writing. Not all subscribers to journals are practitioners.


Bakker, M. (2013). Are All Models Wrong? Absolutely Not. GroundWater, 51(3), 313–313. http://doi.org/10.1111/gwat.12037

Bennis, W. G., & O’Toole, J. (2005). How business schools lost their way. Harvard Business Review, 5, 96-104.

Bentz, V. M., & Shapiro, J. J. (1998). Mindful Inquiry in Social Research. Sage Publications. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications. http://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781107415324.004

Schön, D. A. (1983). The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. Basic Books. http://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781107415324.004

Yates, L. (2004). What does Good Educational Research look like: Situating a field and its practices. Maidenhead: Open University Press.


About theCaledonian

Scot living in north Japan teaching at a private university.
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