DUSTING OFF THEORY
Traditional academic research is threatened by the shift to applied knowledge, say critics
Is MBA research being “dumbed down”? Business school academics are divided over the impact of rules changing the boundaries of research by MBA students. Some say the changes undermine the principle of analytical rigour, while others argue that they bring a practical edge to what might otherwise be a purely theoretical exercise.
Before the Council on Higher Education introduced a new MBA regime in 2016, research followed the traditional path of an academic treatise or dissertation. But after the MBA was redefined as a professional master’s instead of an academic one, the definition of research also changed. It has shifted to “independent study” that may consist of “a single research or technical project or a series of smaller projects demonstrating innovation or professional expertise”.
Even though this component must account for at least 25% of academic credits required to graduate, that’s a lot of leeway. Some schools prefer the old dissertation route, but other options now include case studies, business plans and even in-house projects for students’ employers.
Rhodes Business School initially retained its adherence to traditional research, but now director Owen Skae says: “We are changing our mind after asking ourselves about the purpose of an MBA. Is the research component meant to provide real solutions to real problems or to gather dust on a library shelf?”
Management College of Southern Africa research head Paresh Soni says: “We are quite comfortable with a company wanting a student to solve its problems. That’s prac-
For some, a doctorate in business administration may be a more natural progression than a PHD
What it means tical, goals-based research.”
Nelson Mandela University Business School director Randall Jonas adds: “Schools exist in the service of business and our research should reflect that. The issue should not be about theoretical or practical research, but about the intelligence you walk away with.”
That’s all very well, says Wits Business School academic Terri Carmichael, but you can’t let traditional academic research die. Applied knowledge is one thing, but there’s also a need for the ground-breaking, conceptual kind. Past research emanating from business schools has had a profound impact on economic and business thinking.
Most schools still measure their research credentials by publications and conference papers. Carmichael fears that activity may be affected. “Much of the MBA research coming through is not of sufficient depth for journals,” she says.
“Research is not just about sourcing information and putting it in a presentable form.
“It’s about being able to think critically and evaluate information sources. We should not be putting out students who just accept things at face value.”
There’s another consideration. Applied research won’t automatically prepare graduates for a PHD — considered a natural next step by some students.
“PHD research is abstract and needs at least some connection to theory,” says Carmichael. “There must be some ‘Ph’. But most students arrive on MBA programmes with little or no research background, then leave with little real experience. They are not prepared for a PHD.”
For some, a doctorate in business administration (DBA) may be a more natural progression. North-west University’s School of Business & Governance is shifting from a PHD to a DBA. Director Fulu Netswera says: “The new MBA dissertation requirements are not as rigorous, so schools may struggle to get students through to a PHD. They probably aren’t making it as clear as they could that the MBA has become a professional degree.”
At the University of Pretoria’s Gordon Institute of Business Science some students may write a scholarly paper rather than a research report.