Innovators and the university (the b-school)

Wuhan_university If the University is no longer so vital as a center of innovation (see yesterday’s post), does it still create innovators?

Call this the "Canada" model of innovation where an institution/country that is bad at innovation still manages to export people who are good at it.

The University is, of course, a house of many mansions.  I will look only at the professional schools: the b-school, d-school, e-school, and the law school.  (Though I will say in passing that the liberal arts continue to supply exemplary  intellectual training even as they too often insists on political and epistemological orthodoxy that renders the liberal arts grad next to useless when it comes to innovation.  And here I define innovation as IBM’s Sanford does: creativity plus insight.)


B-schools are good at some aspects of innovation training, and really bad at others.  That "easter egg hunt" called the case study is very good at giving students the ability to see through a confusing tangle of factors to the things that matter. But this is a decompositional ability.  It is good at breaking down, and much less good at building up. 

If the culture of Microsoft has a problem when it comes to innovation, it is precisely this.  Not so long ago, I listened to Microsoft managers interrogate potential innovations, demanding to know how they could be monetized! Most innovations begin as inspirations and we should treat them as the Inuit treat newly born children, as gifts who must be treated with solicitude for fear they will return whence they came.  Spare inspirations the ROI rack…at least for a little while.

This is a long standing problem for the corporation and the b-school.  Both are so keen on a tough minded pragmatism that there are often insufficient intellectual resources or inclinations with which too nourish or embrace the new.  After all, the new begins as something barely thinkable.  It is too much to ask that it make itself immediately practical.  Both the b-school and the corporation have to get better at ideas that are almost completely weightless and quite without utility. 

The further problem with the business school is that it continues to treat the consumer and producer as economic actors and the market place as the sum and total of the transactions creating between these actors.  All the larger, collective contexts that establish value, create context, supply meaning and motivate purchase are dismissed or diminished.  Culture never gets talked about in a systematic way. 

When I was teaching at a business school we taught a cases on DeWalt power tools and Land’s End merchandising, both of which turn on the cultural specifications of gender.  (Briefly DeWalt repositioned a brand by regendering it.   Land’s End was gifted a new segment of female consumers because cultural ideas of women and women’s clothing were changing.)  These cultural specifications were never mentioned.  When I raised them as possibilities people looked at me as if I were mad.  (I hasten to add that I am not one of those social scientist who wants to neglect or exclude "economic man."  The challenge for anthropology is indeed how to make him feel as welcome as an Inuit child.)

B-schools were founded and largely staffed by economists.  Over the years, the economists were displaced and a supra-economistic understanding of the consumer, the producer and the marketplace were smuggled in.  The work of this transformation is however not complete, despite the fact that the intellectual work has been in place for some time: Durkheim, Polanyi, Sahlins, Granovetter.  Let the revolution continue.

In sum, the innovators produced by b-schools are hampered in two ways. First, the b-school discourages the the full creativity that innovation requires.  Second, it artificially constrains the problem set, so that students are discourages from combining creativity with insight, that is, with a full reckoning of the world in which the creativity must make itself useful. (I refer once more to  Linda Sanford’s distinction.)

I have run out of time but by this first reckoning it looks as if the University might be failing in the production of both innovation and innovators.  This is scarier, still.   

Tomorrow: the d-schools and innovation


Sanford, Linda.  2006.  Building an Innovation Company for the 21st Century.  MIT-IBM Innovation Lecture Series.  October 17, 2006.  here.

6 thoughts on “Innovators and the university (the b-school)

  1. John Deighton

    I may be one of those you thought looked at you as if you were mad when you proposed that the story of Black & Decker’s power tool relaunch be told to Harvard Business School students as a story of regendering. Mad? No, just out of order. Cases are not, as you put it, easter egg hunts. They don’t hide things to teach the skills of uncovering. They pose a problem and let the diverse skills of a class go to work on it. They teach people to use each other to get to solutions. It would have been great if someone in a class had had the anthropological insight that Black & Decker’s success with feminine beauty appliances had taken the starch out of its drills, but ideas need someone to advocate for them and in a good business school classroom that person is never the instructor. The goal of an MBA education is not to learn that the professor is smart – leave that to undergraduate colleges – but that one’s peers are smart and that together they are ready to rule the world.

    What was missing was an anthropologist in the student ranks. And for that I don’t blame the MBA admissions office. I blame undergraduate anthropology departments. When you are 18, courses in anthropology don’t seem to be what you need to get on in the world. At best they have the mouldy irrelevance of monastic chanting, at worst the squeaky powerlessness of Marxist indignation. Why are undergraduate students so much more likely to study psychology than culture? It seems vaguely useful.

  2. steve

    I only wish Grant’s critique of business schools were true. If there is one thing we do not do effectively, it is turn our students into economistic thinkers. Sure, if you ask students a question specifically about “opportunity costs,” for example, they can spit back the right answer most of the time, but when they have to spontaneously apply the idea in a case situation, the success rate falls drastically. I don’t know how many times I’ve had students “explain” sustainability of leading market positions by claiming that the leader’s past success gives it more cash than potential imitators. (Useful technique for flushing out this particular fallacy–ask the student how much money they think imitation would take, then ask them if they were magically endowed with that sum would they choose to invest it in imitating the market leader? When they say no, it becomes apparent that cash isn’t the issue.)

    The reasons for this hit-or-miss educational performance are many and varied, but one of them is a lack of intellectual rigor and pressure across the curriculum. Getting people to thnk better about business problems is mostly about breaking intellectual bad habits, learning useful templates and patterns, and developing good judgment about when to use which template and how far to trust them. That requires making students uncomfortable by disillusioning them about their erroneous ideas, and we’re all too worried about our teaching ratings to do that as much as we should. In other words, I think there is far too little critical thinking in b-schools applied to proposed strategies, innovative or otherwise, than there should be. Or perhaps the modes of critical thinking are not sufficiently internalized to be called upon spontaneously.

    Thus, I doubt that a more agapic environment in the classroom is the cure for any lack of innovation coming from b-schools. But I agree that greater cultural understanding, both in terms of anthropological technique and specific content about the here and now, would be a big plus for b-school teaching and research and could actually improve our students’ critical thinking processes.

  3. Grant


    Thanks for your comment.

    I agree that case studies are collaborative. (This is one of their strengths and their joys.)

    What you appear to be saying is that topics and kinds of knowledge are disqualified (or at least excluded) from entry into the class room unless they are “in the air,” available to students as a result of their undergraduate education or daily experience.

    I believe this has a formal flaw and a substantive one.

    Formally, your position means the case study method cannot teach something that isn’t already there. Surely, this is precisely not the position that a robust b-school wants to take, especially at a time when the world is so filled with discontinuity.

    Substantively, in point of fact, except for the wonkiest students, and there were some of those, every head in every HBS classroom teams with a deep and thorough cultural knowledge. All of them belong to a generation(s) that take popular culture seriously and master it down to the ground. (Unlike our generations which found popular culture embarrassing.)

    So it is there in the classroom, and still doesn’t get included in the stuff of case study. There is in effect an embargo on this sort of thing, not least because some of the members of an otherwise distinguished teaching staff, and you know who I mean, would be completely out of their depth if these considerations were let in.

    In the course of my teaching, I would sometime elicit cultural knowledge and the first reaction would be shocked expressions and a great pause, as if to say “oh, but we don’t do that sort of thing around here. We don’t talk about culture.” Once I have signaled that the embargo was suspended, then people would step up and the room would fill with lots of knowledge and an enthusiastic collaboration in its contemplation. The HBS classroom didn’t need someone who was an undergraduate anthropologist. Almost every student came with an “anthropologist within,” as it were, or at least a deep knowledge of culture that has yet to be activated for case study purposes.

    Worst case, we could stay HBS students are indulging HBS professors. Something like, “For the purposes of this institution, this classroom, this method and this teacher, we shall pretend that culture isn’t there, and if it is, that culture doesn’t matter.” As we have pointed out in many, um, spirited, conversations, this embargo works much of the time. Eighty percent of the cases can be cracked without reference to culture. But the remainder cannot be intelligently dispatched without cultural references, and I think this number actually includes some of the jewels of the crown, at least when I was teaching there, and especially DeWalt and Land’s End.

    In sum, culture matters too much to be excluded from the b-school classroom…not least because it is already there.

  4. Diego Rodriguez

    This is a very timely and interesting discussion. Personally, I’m part of the “” movement but I’m very much a product of the b-school system, in particular HBS. I had the pleasure of having Professor John Deighton (the first commenter above) for several marketing courses. As an aside, I’ve also been fortunate enough to share a delightful dinner with Steve Postrel, but alas no business discussion took place.

    Is culture present in the b-school system? Yes and no. So much of what happens in the classroom depends on chemistry. The case in question matters. The subject area matters (one is more likely to argue on the basis of culture in a Business, Government, and the International Economy class than in a Corporate Finance session). And obviously the professor as an individual, along the 40-80 active student participants as individuals and as a tribe, so to speak. I’d argue that, from a cultural perspective, any given case discussion could be as flat and lifeless as mass-marketed lager, or as rich and chewy as an obscure Welsh porter. It’s the ingredients and the way they’re treated that allows the culture in, and which elevates the culture that’s already there. My most memorable moments at HBS were when we explored the relationship of Crunchy Frog to the go-market strategy of Snapple, or when we took time to understand why an anti-six sigma, high-variance operating system could make a lot of sense when it took the form of a Tasmanian winery called Delamere. I think the culture is there, and it is not there.

    Of course I’m speaking from a personal bias, because I’ve only ever experienced case discussions where I was an active participant, either in the seating galleries or out up front. I actually use the case method on occasion at Stanford, both at the and within the Product Design program. And the subject? Meaning. I use a HBS case about Ducati to uncover issues of meaning and how meaning might be designed in to a market offering. In this specific case the students have to decide, as the management of Ducati, whether to enter the market for cruiser motorcycles. Given what’s in the case, it could easily be taught as a finance lesson (but not by me!), but each time I’ve led the discussion, it’s been all about culture. Italian culture, the culture of motorcycles, the culture of sport cruisers, of choppers, etc… To John’s point above, the class contains some anthropologists, or at least anthropology-savvy design students, so that helps with the discussion direction, but the rest of the class is a mixture of engineers, business school students, and other motley Stanford graduate students.

    I’m very interested to read what you have to say in Part II: The D.schools.

  5. richard

    I’m not sure why anyone would expect b-schools to be engines of innovation. That’s probably the last place I would look on a university campus to find a group of innovative people. B-schools strike me as being more like military schools – always fighting the last war. The reason for the growth in the business school industry over the past two decades has more to do with the financial incentive of students to obtain MBAs than anything else. Perhaps this fad is now coming to an end.

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