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'Knowing v. doing' debate rolls on

Lack of practical focus invites criticizm

By Ian Grayson for CNN

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Critics say some business schools emphasize theory at the expense of practise.

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FT's Executive MBA Rankings
1. Wharton, U.S.
2. Kellogg, U.S.
3. Chicago GSB, U.S.
4. Stern, NY, U.S.
5. Fuqua, Duke, U.S.
6. Hong Kong UST, China
7. Columbia, U.S.
8. Instituto de Empresa, Spain
9. London Business School, UK
10. Tanaka, Imperial College, UK
Source: Financial Times 2005

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EMBA SNAPSHOT

Executives taking the top EMBA courses in the U.S., Europe and Asia have average salaries of around $130,000 to $200,000.

A typical EMBA student is likely to be aged in the early 30s, with 6-10 years of working experience.

A top EMBA course can cost $100,000. Customized courses start at a few thousand dollars.

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(CNN) -- With their roots planted firmly in the fertile soil of academic research, business schools are often criticized for their lack of focus on the job of imparting practical skills to their students.

As faculty members are measured by their ability to write and publish academic papers, many observers believe this is leading to executive and degree courses being too theoretical in nature.

It's a debate that has been under way in the business education community for many years. How can schools ensure they deliver a useful balance of business theory with practical knowledge?

Companies investing the significant amounts required to send their executives to short courses or MBA degrees want to ensure they return with skills they can put into practice immediately. An understanding of the theories of how the commercial world operates is not enough.

More fuel has been thrown on the fire by a recent article in the respected Harvard Business Review. Its authors say business schools are being criticized for failing to impart useful skills, instill ethical behavior and lead students to good corporate positions.

According to the article, rather than measuring their success in terms of the competence of their graduates, business schools assess themselves almost totally on the rigor of their scientific research.

"This scientific model is predicated on the faulty assumption that business is an academic discipline like chemistry or geology when, in fact, business is a profession and business schools are professional schools--or should be," says the article's authors.

Many in the debate believe such a situation stems from the tendency of business schools to hire research-oriented academics rather than attracting staff who have had practical business experience.

Antonio Fatas, dean of European business school INSEAD's MBA program, says this academic-versus-practical debate is one that has been going on for a long time.

"There is a tension in a professional school, whether it is medical, law or business," he told CNN. "It's about getting a balance between purely academic research and practical knowledge. We are very aware that we have to keep a balance."

Fatas says the debate appears to have gathered momentum during the past couple of years because some world economies have experienced an economic downturn. This in turn had made it more difficult for MBA students to find suitable positions upon graduation.

He argues it is not fair to blame course structure for what clearly has been a change in economic circumstances.

"My expectation is that, in the next two years when the markets have recovered, there will not be as many stories about the MBA degree not being as strong or practical as it should be," he says.

Derrick Bolton, director of MBA admissions for Stanford Graduate School of Business, says teaching theory remains a vital part of courses as it provides a framework in which students can approach the challenges they will face in the workforce.

"I think of the two components as 'knowing' and 'doing'," he says. "Business schools have always been good at the 'knowing' part but perhaps not so good on the 'doing' side."

At Stanford GSB, Bolton says students are actively encouraged to undertake practical exercises as an integral part of their studies. Rather than simply learning about negotiation skills and tactics, for example, they will actually take part in class-based negotiation sessions.

Other business schools are following a similar line, ensuring class sessions are peppered with healthy amounts of interaction, discussion and debate. By focusing on the real-world experiences of participants, the schools hope to ensure they complete their courses with skills that can be put to use immediately.

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