Something like 25 percent of US university students currently major in business or management, and in the UK, 30 percent of under graduates study some management. Elsewhere, business and management education is expanding its scope. A Chinese government minister is said to have recently called for a million MBA (Master of Business Administration) graduates to help fuel the national economy. Such penetration and expansion in higher education systems and other educational domains have prompted considerable comment and sociological research activity. The latter has often come from outside sociology departments, in schools of management and education, for example. While a number of concerns reflect more general educational issues such as pedagogy, vocationalism, and the social role of the university or academy, key areas of attention and debate are focused around core sociological issues: globalization, commodification, and professionalization.
Typically, management education is associated with the activities of business and management schools, mostly within universities, and the hallmark qualification of the MBA and related executive education. Here, a whole range of topics is taught, mostly linked to management functions (e.g., personnel/human resource management; finance and accounting; marketing, strategy; production and operations), and often with their own relevant core disciplines (e.g., psychology, math, economics, engineering, and sociology). However, it is important to point out not only the management education of university students majoring in other subjects, but also the activities of other educational institutions, including semiprofessional associations and schools, where management is a comparatively recent subject on the formal curriculum. In addition, the mass media serves as a conduit for management being ”self-taught,” especially through books written by so called management gurus. Indeed, arguably, the latter are more influential than formal education, certainly in promoting particular approaches to managing people and organizations. Peters and Waterman’s In Search of Excellence, for example, sold millions of copies worldwide.
Considerable attention has been given to the history, development, and geographical spread of management education, notably through the work of Robert Locke. As management emerged as a separate activity, elite, and ideology, it was initially aligned with engineering/scientific management (and accounting/finance) and then, following the Hawthorne studies, with a more ”sociological” approach, human relations, as large organizations with extensive supervisory hierarchies emerged in the US. The latter development in particular is associated with the expansion of the early US business schools (e.g., Wharton and Harvard, both formed pre-World War I), although most expansion followed World War II. These schools were to fuel and symbolically represent an emerging cadre of formally educated managers and consultants, although numerically, most education was carried out in various colleges or trade schools and existing (e.g., accounting) and emerging (e.g., personnel) professional associations.
Formal management education in business schools remained largely concentrated in the US for some time, although US based practices (e.g., the assembly line) were promoted in other ways. For example, the post war economic growth of Germany and Japan occurred in the absence of comparable educational approaches and qualifications. However, this period, often in parallel with the Marshall Aid program and more general influence of US based multi nationals, saw the establishment of some US style business schools in Western Europe (e.g., INSEAD in France and Manchester and London Business Schools in the UK). While educational institutions remained, and continue to be, largely distinctive, university based management education and the MBA have both grown enormously outside the US in the last 20 years. In the UK, for example, there are over 100 business schools. Some of these, along with US and Australian schools especially, have actively recruited overseas students, especially from fast growing Asian economies, where they have also set up or partnered campuses and qualifications. This development continues, accelerated by distance learning and, in particular, ”e learning,” although increasingly, it is only a minority of mostly US institutions whose MBA carries significant prestige.
This geographical expansion of management education and its particular approach/content have been subjected to sociological critique over Americanization or neo imperialism, if not globalization. Here, arguments vary between seeing the spread of the MBA and business schools as marking a standardization of management education or that cultural and institutional systems are more or less resilient to such developments, despite superficial appearances of increasing commonality. The latter position might point to examples of how management ideas, techniques, and educational media have been adapted to existing cultural practices and institutional conditions such as prevailing value systems or economic structures. At the same time, the nature of that standard as offering a largely positivist, managerialist, masculinist, and ethno centric view of work and organizations has been critiqued from opposing positions.
The expansion of management education and its demand combined with a more neoliberal and managerial approach to education and its funding has also led to liberal and humanist critiques over the commodification of knowledge and qualifications. Here, at the extreme, education is seen as no longer for its own sake, or even to develop useful skills, but as an income generator for student and university alike. The MBA has become probably the most widely recognized, if not always valued, qualification which can readily transcend national and sector boundaries. Although not restricted to management, this has seen the reconstitution of students into consumers, with shifts in student-teacher relations and mixed outcomes for those involved and excluded. For example, although assessment of students clearly exposes the lie of “sovereign” consumer power, reliance on fee income means that staff teaching evaluations and the provision of executive facilities combined with the maintenance of the institutional “brand” and league table positions become “educational” imperatives. This shift has also seen the increasing involvement of corporations in management education, not as sponsors of students or research but as producers, outsourcers, and consumers. In particular, some companies are setting up their own ”corporate universities” while others are commissioning tailor made MBAs.
Such developments connect with longstanding debates over management education as an ideological or professional project and thence to issues of power/privilege, control, and exclusion. This is, of course, intimately connected to various perspectives on management knowledge. There are three main views. Firstly, management knowledge is a universally applicable and testable science where there is a ”one best way” of managing which varies with circumstances or change, such as increasing complexity or organizational size. Secondly, management emerged as a way of appropriating workplace control from labor, most evidently through scientific management, in order to secure profit – managers as agents of capital. Management knowledge and education then continue to develop in order to counter the associated resistance to control. Thus, they serve an ideological purpose in justifying and explaining how work is managed and the fact that it is done so by a particular elite group. This relates to the third, institutional, view put forward by Shenav, who argues that it was neither efficiency nor control imperatives alone that account for the rise of management, but the activities of engineers, ”a new class of salaried technocrats – wishing to carve out their own domain within industrial organizations” (1999: 9). This observation points to the start of attempts to professionalize management and its functional specialisms through education which continues today.
As in other and sometimes related and competing fields such as accounting, a core element of professionalization is the establishment of a body of technical knowledge which is deemed as necessary and to which access is limited through the regulatory practices of an independent association such as examination. This is evident in the early activities of engineers to establish management as a scientific endeavor and to form various professional bodies. Likewise, human relations and subsequently, industrial psychology formed the basis of the ”science” of people management and spawned associations such as the Institute of Personnel Management (now the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development) in the UK. However, a core tension necessarily lies between the role and identities of managers as experts or employees/agents – cosmopolitans or locals. Overall, the power of employers has prevented the kind of professionalization which occurred in earlier eras in law and medicine, for example. Alongside this is the academic status of the knowledge and the role of universities and business schools. In the 1950s, for instance, the Ford and Carnegie Reports in the US called for business schools to become less like trade schools and more academic. This helped fuel the subsequent growth of mostly positivistic management research and journals, symbols of academic respectability, and a gradual, if still incomplete, acceptance of management within university departments. For example, it is only comparatively recently that the traditional academic institutions of Oxford and Cambridge universities in the UK have established main stream business schools, although aspects of management have been part of engineering curricula for some time.
While it is probably only a minority of university management departments that aspire to an academic research based identity or are resourced to do so, recent debates focus on the extent to which this may be under threat. There are a number of developments, in the West at least, which relate to the more enduring themes of the purpose and beneficiaries of education, universities, and management education. Firstly, and following on from consumerist trends, there are calls from students, managerial commentators, employers, and government agencies for a more applied, practical, integrative, and less analytical, (sub)disciplinary and critical approach, what has come to be known as ”mode 2” knowledge. The assumption here is that management education should simply provide techniques for managers to manage (i.e., management training), perhaps at the expense of more liberal and pluralistic concerns with reflection and inclusivity. However, some see the issue in terms of currently popular approaches to knowledge and learning as embedded in practice rather than in the classroom (e.g., Mintzberg’s recent book, Managers Not MBAs).
Indeed, more generally, knowledge and learning have become partially displaced from formal educational spaces and seen as central to govern mental and corporate policy for improved competitiveness – the knowledge economy and learning organizations, for example. Moreover, given rhetorical claims made about the relative pace of organizational and social change, such knowledge is regarded as being in flux. In the context of management, emphasis is placed on increasingly dominant discourses of leadership, entrepreneurship, innovation, and continuous learning as opposed to learning a core and relatively stable body of knowledge, conceptual frameworks, and models. Indeed, and further challenging the traditional professional project of rendering knowledge specialist, abstract, and exclusive/excluding, management discourse is permeating different realms of people’s ”private” lives such as personal health and relationships. This does not so much democratize management, in terms of access to positions of privilege, as normalize it as a largely rationalist and instrumental orientation to the world. Such insights emerge from another, contrasting, and less audible source of critique of contemporary management education, that of ”critical management studies,” which draws on diverse critical social theories such as Marxism, feminism, postmodernism, postcolonialism, and queer theory. Together, although largely marginal(ized) from mainstream research, this points to the centrality of power, inequality, and exclusion within the practice and pedagogy of management education, its institutions and effects.
Management education research is not, of course, an exclusively sociological domain. In terms of everyday educational practice, it remains dominated by largely depoliticized (social) psychological concerns with learning. Both here and in more sociological studies, emphasis remains close to home, on the university, business school, and related institutions. Other educational spaces are largely lost within technicist concerns over training effectiveness or broader non-management specific educational issues. While institutional approaches sometimes point to a variety of (e.g., national) structures and locations of management education and its elites, there is considerable scope for extending research to other domains and actors, not least because of the broad reach of management dis course and formal education. Here, traditional sociological concerns with school education and social structure might be reexplored as well as relatively new fields such as educational media corporations and industries. Finally, most management education research is written from the perspectives of western management academics. This might be usefully complemented by the voices of other (e.g., educational) sociologists and those from different geographical spaces and management traditions.
- Engwall, L. & Zamagni, V. (Eds.) (1998) Management Education in Historical Perspective. Manchester University Press, Manchester.
- French, R. & Grey, C. (1996) Rethinking Management Education. Sage, London.
- Locke, R. (1984) Management and Higher Education Since 1940. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
- Pollard, S. (1965) The Genesis of Modern Management. Penguin, Harmondsworth.
- Shenav, Y. (1999) Manufacturing Rationality. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
- Whitley, R., Thomas, A., &Marceau, J. (1981) MBAs: The Making of a New Elite? Tavistock, London.