Financial Mail - - COVER STORY - David Fur­longer fur­longerd@fm.co.za

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.

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