Martin Parker is a management professor who started out studying anthropology and sociology. This has given him a distinct viewpoint on management education that leads him to think that what is taught at business schools is a very narrow take on how organizations can be run, and that business schools ought to leverage their role as research institutions and educators to broaden the exploration of business processes, not just focus in more tightly on one aspect of it: market managerial capitalism. He talks here with Roddy Millar on how things could be changed.
Roddy Millar: Hello, and welcome to this podcast from Ideas for Leaders. I am Roddy Millar. Ideas for Leaders is a platform that was founded on the notion that the more nuggets of empirical research around leadership and management practice that managers and executives are able to play around with, the greater their potential for putting those ideas together in innovative ways to solve the complex problems and challenges that we’re faced with today.
The vast majority of these research ideas come from leading global business schools. So I’m very pleased to have as my guest today a business school professor, who shares our view that finding new solutions of people’s problems are best nurtured from a greater breadth of thinking.
But I’m also conscious that his radicalism is very much focused on the world that we work closely with, the business school. Martin Parker is a professor of management at the University of Bristol, though trained in anthropology and sociology. His exploration of organizational diversity first appeared through his 2007 publication, the Dictionary of Alternatives, which is followed up with this year with a more focused bulimic, Shut Down the Business School, which is a slightly more forgiving subtitle of what’s wrong with management education.
Martin, welcome to the Ideas for Leaders podcast.
Martin Parker: Thanks very much, good to be here.
Roddy Millar: Now, I mentioned just then that your background is in anthropology and sociology, rather than in management science per se. Does that, sort of, put you in a slightly different position, or give you a slightly different perspective, do you think, to how you view the business school?
Martin Parker: Absolutely, I think it does. I mean, I don’t think I’ve ever really felt at home within the business school, given that my training was outside it. This isn’t that uncommon in the UK, though. Because business schools in the UK develop comparatively late, compared to the US, for example.
And quite a lot of people were recruited with degree, you know PhDs in sociology, geography, politics, and so on. Particularly if you were working within the organizational behaviour, organization studies part of management in business.
So there’s quite a lot of people like me, I think, who had their training outside, and have, and in some sense, followed the money inside. Because there were very few jumps for me in the sociology department.
So, you know, there’s that kind of strange sense of being a stranger in a strange land, I suppose.
Roddy Millar: But, that breadth of horizon that comes with subduing ethnographic research and anthropology, or sociology. Do you see that happening amongst your peers in the business school world?
Martin Parker: I think the, as I said, the British Business School is slightly unusual, in that there are a whole bunch of academics. Mostly now, in their sort of 40s, 50s, 60s, I suppose, who moved into business schools after they’ve done their PhDs in a different discipline.
I think that meant that they brought a lot of their methodological and disciplinary commitments with them. So there’s a kind of a generation of people, as I said, specifically around the kind of organization studies community, who do seem to have commitments which are kind of ethnographic, or broadly concerned with the more kind of symbolic, or cultural dimensions of organizational activity.
Roddy Millar: If we look in the subtitle of your book, as I said, is what’s wrong with management education, and for those who haven’t read the book, what do you see as being wrong with management education? What is the big issue that you’re identifying?
Martin Parker: I think the big issue is that one that’s, it’s probably the most controversial one of all, for your listeners as I would guess, which is the idea that business schools teach capitalism. And they teach a very particular form of capitalism. But largely naturalize that as if that was the only way in which business could be done. I’ve got a whole series about that kind of interlocking complaints, but many of those in some sense are rather predictable, in terms of say, the complicity of business schools in teaching the complex financial instruments that were, certainly helped the last financial crisis take place. Or encouraging a certain sort of short term ism, or what some people might call greed, amongst many of our students.
But the most important one for me is the fact that business schools largely reproduce one particular form of organizing, as if that were the only way in which organizing could take place.
Roddy Millar: And that sort of homogeneity is clearly restricting further, and further, what happens from those people who graduate from business school. But do you see that the world around the business school, or business more widely, is developing in other ways that the business schools is not talking about?
Martin Parker: I do, I do think that’s the case, and I do hope that’s the case, as well. So there’s a combination of observation, and aspiration, there I think.
If we take for example, the challenges that climate change suggests for us. Assuming you’re not gonna be daft and deny it, then business needs to address questions of carbon reduction. And it needs to address that in all of its activities. And that means shorter supply chains, it means 360 economies, all sorts of stuff like that. And they need to be more than regarded as CSR, they have to be regarded absolutely integral to the way in which we think about capitalism.
Now, one of the implications of that, just for an illustration, is that international trade becomes a problem, because something like 80% of carbon emissions result from the shipping container ships, which are even now steaming around bringing us stuff we don’t really want. So, we need to localize the economy. So, that means, that we need to think about a concept like comparative advantage of nations, in some much more skeptical ways. And really, to encourage organizations to be smaller and more responsible to their localities, both in terms of the people, but also the ecosystem within those localities.
Now, this isn’t good news for big companies, because big companies or course, tend to externalize their problems. You know, they would buy carbon credits somewhere else. And indeed, bigness itself has become something of a virtue I think, in the way that we think about the success of companies.
Now for me, that becomes a real problem, because I want to suggest that a successful economy might actually be anti-growth, and it might be very pro small. Largely because those seem to be organizational arrangements that could be helpful for us in terms of reducing carbon.
Roddy Millar: Those clearly difficult issues for executives to get their head around-
Martin Parker: That’s right. I think that’s true. To some extent I sympathize with them. Not that much, but to some extent.
Roddy Millar: I think your point and part of your solution that you mention in the book, is this sort of school of organizations that look at different ways that humans have, or society has organized itself, and if I understand you correctly, it is to adapt organizational structures to the most appropriate ones for different specific needs. And that is not necessarily always going to be the market managerial capitalist structure that business schools push forward.
Martin Parker: Just so, that’s right. And I suppose this goes back to what we were talking about right at the start in terms of my training outside the business school. So if we look at a discipline like anthropology, or indeed, say history for example, what we can see that human beings have organized themselves in a huge variety of different ways, across space and time. Variety if you like is more significant than similarity.
Roddy Millar: Hmm.
Martin Parker: But yet, the way in which we now imagine organizing, and the way in which business schools tend to teach it, is remarkably restricted I think, in terms of assumptions about hierarchy and decision making, and mobility, and responsibility, and reward, and you know, a whole series of assumptions, which are affectively now kind of in bedded into the common sense of the business school.
But are not, I don’t think, functionally necessary in order to organize well. We human beings seem to have managed to organize themselves, and indeed to construct quite complex economic arrangements without the sage assistance of the business school. So I guess I’d like to encourage a bit more of that.
Roddy Millar: Yeah, I wonder if your view is unduly pessimistic about it, in that we are seeing a demand from particularly there’s lots of comment and discussion these days about how millennial generation are looking for much more intrinsic reward around purpose, and work life balance, and indeed interested in sustainability, and sort of more global issues to, than apparently previous generations were. And so, in response to that, we’re seeing organizations, not necessarily business schools, but large corporations, scrambling to try and fulfill some of those intrinsic requirements, or demands, that the new generation is after because they’re in a scramble for talent. So I wonder if there is an external change going to happen that might possibly shift the business school. Do you see any sign of that happening from where you stand?
Martin Parker: Yeah, yeah, and I think that’s a really hopeful scenario, isn’t it? Is that the changes to business school education would be driven by the desires, and aspirations, of young people who want to go into business schools. The problem is that I think that though there are signs of that happening, and it’s certainly the case that there seems to be more awareness about questions about of say, sustainability, or social inclusion, or social justice or whatever they might be, but that’s still relatively marginal in most business schools.
So, if we look at say, a fairly average North West European, or North American business school, it is still for example, going to be earning most of it’s cash by teaching Masters Degrees, which reproduce a particular view of the financial system, for example.
So, though I think there are encouraging signs, if we really want to see substantial radical changes in business education, then this needs to come from more than just tinkering with business schools. I guess that’s part of my impatience, is that when I’ve been raising these kinds of issues, moaning on for years, and years, about these kinds of things, and much of the time the response is, but look it’s okay, we’ve got a module in corporate social responsibility, or we are much better at diversity than we were before. Or, but we do teach about sustainability, and so on.
And that’s fine, but most of those things are decorations. Most of those things aren’t the core part of what gets taught within business schools, and the core part I could maintain, for the vast majority of business schools, right the way across the globe, is the reproduction of corporate capitalism. And I think that’s a really dangerous, a really dangerous sort of knowledge production. And I do acknowledge there are people who aren’t doing this, I’ve had lots and lots of emails since the book came out from people who said, “But my course isn’t like this.” or “My students don’t do this.” Fine, I agree, and I’m very, very happy to celebrate them, but 99% of it is.
Roddy Millar: Is the issue that like many institutions, the business school is not very good at practicing what it preaches? And in what a business school professor would refer to as the ambidexterity challenge of they’ve got a mature model which is pretty successful at creating a nice revenue stream and everyone’s doing quite nicely out of it, why rock the boat and try and reinvent something, when it ain’t broke at the moment?
Martin Parker: That’s right, and there’s a strange, I mean I think that’s probably true, and there’s a strange kind of contradiction here as well, isn’t there? In that lots of subjects being taught at Universities, we’d assume that a professor of history knows about history, or that someone who’s teaching advanced theoretical physics would probably be an expert in advanced theoretical physics. But business schools are incredibly sensitive to their market. So effectively what you see is that the cultivation of curricula and courses and so on, effectively, it’s not entirely directed, but very often directed by so called market demand. This is the equivalent of a professor of physics saying, “What should we teach on a physics degree? Let’s ask the people who haven’t even been and done a physics degree yet”
Which is a really bizarre analogy isn’t it? I mean, if Universities, University learning institutions like business schools, have any kind of expertise that’s worth selling at all, then surely they shouldn’t be selling this short by simply assuming they should be doing what the students want.
Roddy Millar: I think there’s an issue to, isn’t there, around seeing this increasingly, this shift in business school from … I’m guilty of having gone to business school myself, and when I did it in the early 90s-
Martin Parker: I didn’t know I was having a conversation with one of those-
Roddy Millar: I should have kept that under wraps. In the 1990s, it was very functional, what I was being taught, around marketing and operations, and accounting, and so on, and I think there’s a clear movement now, too much more around the softer topics around leadership and management, and also broader ones, that as you mentioned the ones around CSR and so on. So, the pendulum does seem to be moving. I doubt it will get right to the other side where they drop those, but the function ones.
Martin Parker: Yeah, I suppose the intent of my provocation, the whole idea of the shut down thing, is that I don’t think it’s enough to redecorate what we’ve already got. I think we need to start, in terms of thinking about the education about organization and exchange in the future, we need to radically rethink some of the central propositions that we teach to students. And it strikes me that you know, the business school now has kind of hardened into a particular kind of carapace, a particular sort of institution, and it’s gonna be very, very difficult within the constraints of that institution, to produce the kind of education that I think we need. So, that’s really in a sense, I’m advocating a new kind of institution, or new sort of University department.
Now, it’s not terribly realistic to ask for these kinds of things, but I think as a thought experiment, it’s very useful in provoking some radical rethinking. And not the kind of rather smug head nodding I often get, in which you know, I talk to your average Dean about these kinds of things, they’d say, “Oh, yes, yes, yes, it’s very important, and we’ve signed up to the UN principles for responsible management education.”
Roddy Millar: That’s really, really good, is there anything else changed? Really. Do you think the solution then will need to come from left field? You know, a completely separate non University aligned organization, or at least not something that’s involved through a business school, but has been started a fresh?
Martin Parker: Yeah, yeah, I mean, perhaps. It’s difficult to see isn’t it really, because again, one of the complexities in this is the funding structure of higher education in the different countries that the listeners will be in.
In the UK, with the, you know, effectively with the withdrawal of State funding, it’s a market-ized system, and so the income that comes in through business schools, is quite crucial to subsidizing the rest of the University. You know, apocryphally there would be no chemistry departments left in the UK, without the business school bringing in some income.
So, it’s a complicated picture. In other more socialized higher education systems, in you know, say Denmark or Sweden or somewhere like that, then it’s a bit easier to see these kinds of developments taking place, because there’s more of a decoupling between academic imagination if you like, and students turning up.
So, in other words, I suppose my point is, it’s difficult to sort of talk about these things in the abstract-
Roddy Millar: In the abstract-
Martin Parker: Without thinking about where the cash is coming from that’s gonna pay for the business schools in the first place.
Roddy Millar: I mean in what you do personally, as a professor at a business school, does any of this come through in your activity, or do you find yourself railroaded by the structures of the business school to adhere to the status quo?
Martin Parker: No, I’m not, and I mean, I’ve come out of a small sort of a movement, that’s usually called critical management studies, so quite a sort of powerful movement in … well not powerful exactly, but a coherent movement in sort of North West Europe. So a bunch of people, very often with backgrounds in sociology, who are eternal critics of the business school.
Now, I’ve been lucky enough to work in several business schools where, effectively nobody’s tried to clip my wings. And in any case, I think it’d be very difficult to do that for many academics, because of the freedoms that you have in the classroom. In order to teach and research well, you have to give academics some kind of responsible autonomy. They’re not just gonna come up with ideas when you click a finger, and you’re not gonna teach well if you’ve got cameras in the classroom.
So, I’ve always exploited those kinds of freedoms to the full. And certainly talked about precisely these kinds of things in the classroom, and I think many students are not entirely happy about being treated as rather asinine customers. They want to be provoked. Many of the young people I talk to now, you know, haven’t probably walked to the classroom past some homeless people who are sleeping in doorways. They’ve seen videos of the last polar bear crying as the ice disappears, and all that kind of stuff. You know, they are aware of these kinds of problems. What I think they don’t know, or what they can’t imagine, is what they can do about it themselves.
Roddy Millar: Well, do you have any uplifting comments to take us forward with, or do you think the challenge just still, that the gauntlet needs to be thrown down? Is that the point, we’ve got there at the moment?
Martin Parker: At the moment yes. I think the gauntlet needs to be thrown down. I mean, you know, the positive bit in the book in chapter seven, I talk quite a lot about what I think this new school for organizing should do. And there are a whole series of interesting business models from cooperatives, and mutuals, and Bcorps, and all sorts of things, that I think the business school really should be concentrating on, in order to think about smaller, more value based business models. And to move away from its assumption that size and revenue are necessarily good things.
It seems to me that, that then opens up the possibility of us talking about a different kind of economic structure. An economic structure in which there is a great deal more worker ownership, probably less reliance on share capital. Certainly and emphasis on patient capital in order to think about the ways in which we can slow down these gigantic movements of money, which are so destabilizing to the global economy.
But also, essentially think about shorter supply chains, in a whole variety of different ways. Kind of keying in on the idea of local economies, in the sense of trying to think about how you might, how you might produce an economic structure that was much more resilient and self reliant, than the extremely fragile jigsaw that we have right now.
Roddy Millar: No, I agree, and I think as we mentioned earlier, that there are a variety of other sort of parallel movements going on around the world being economy, and the circular economy-
Martin Parker: That’s right-
Roddy Millar: And all those new initiatives. So let’s-
Martin Parker: I think many of these need to be at the heart of the curriculum, not the stuff that’s taught in week 10. You know? This is the stuff we should be teaching, ’cause this is the future we’re gonna have to live in. Whether we like it or not. In a sense, it doesn’t matter if you think I’m a kind of lunatic, lefty and so on. But the carbon crisis is enough to force us to rethink business. It’s the challenge is now so great we simply cannot afford to ignore it.
Roddy Millar: The challenge for business school there presumably is that will they get people to come and spend business school type sums of money to learn that, or be exposed to that kind of thinking.
Martin Parker: Yeah, that’s right, yeah. And that’s the hardest bit for me. And there’s a chapter in the book towards the end, where I called it, What do Students Want, and I was trying to think about how I would talk to students about trying to persuade them to come to my new business school. My school for organizing. And that’s a really, really tricky question, given the way in which the marketing of course, is in business schools, and is articulated right now.
I kind of end up with the idea that we should actually just be in a fairly blunt way, treating students like grown-ups. So rather than promising them-
Roddy Millar: Heaven forbid-
Martin Parker: Yeah, heaven forbid, that’s right. ‘Cause effectively the University marketing teams, really just sprinkle fairy dust on students, promise them particular kinds of salaries, particular kind of jobs, show them picture of the exciting young people jumping into airplanes, all that kind of stuff. It’s no more than the kind of marketing that you’d get if it was mobile phones, or some new chocolate bar or something. It’s really not helpful.
Martin Parker: So I think, in order to get students to the kind of place that I need them to be in, to think about the issues that I think are important, I’ve just gotta be honest.
Roddy Millar: Have you taken this argument to any senior corporate business people? ‘Cause I mean, a lot of people at the top of large organizations, are aware of these issues, and are concerned about them, but have a similar challenge in turning the ship around.
Martin Parker: Yeah, I’m very open to those kind of conversations. I mean, as your average work a day academic, most of the time I’m just talking to other work a day academics. And I’m sure that this podcast, and you yourself, have access to dizzying levels.
Roddy Millar: I don’t think any self respecting CEO misses a single one.
Martin Parker: No, exactly. In that case I look forward to those conversations, because I do think that’s really, really important to be able to have those conversations with people with some genuine power and clout. Much of the time, I’m kind of reduced to sort of mumbling to the lecture theater, which is quite satisfying for me, but not necessarily-
Roddy Millar: Doesn’t advance the cause too much. Well, on that note Martin, if someone is wanting to find out more, and get in touch with you, what should they do?
Martin Parker: Very happy to talk to them. Send me an email at email@example.com or just Google me.
Roddy Millar: Fantastic. Brilliant. Martin I’ve really enjoyed that conversation, I think it’s a fascinating sort of polemic that you’ve focused in on, and I’m sure it will change, but it’s just that the speed and rate that it happens at. But thank you very much indeed.
Martin Parker: A pleasure, really good to talk to you too.
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