Business experience vs academic credentials – Are Business Schools missing a trick?

By | September 8, 2010


I recently spoke at a stimulating seminar on ‘Leveraging a Business Career into Academic Success’ run by the Foundation for Management Education (FME). Being asked to speak  about this was a great opportunity for me right at the beginning of  my new job as Dean of the Bradford School of Management.

I had a story to tell about my first faltering steps as a Senior Lecturer at  Faculty of Business and Law, Kingston University and how I battled my way over an 8 year period to Director of Postgraduate Programmes at Kingston, then on to the post of Head of MSc programmes at the School of Management, University of Bath and now the greatest challenge of all – the Deanship at Bradford.

This all represented a dramatic change in career trajectory as I had  previously had 23 years’ management experience in international roles in  Shell – so I speak personally when I say I’m particularly keen that we look outside the strict boundaries of academic achievement to provide the very best business education. I am really passionate about  how important it is for  business  and management schools to bring business leaders on to their teaching staff in order to give real value to our students.

The three barriers business leaders face

I’m very pleased that one of the FME’s key objectives is to encourage business leaders to make this career transition from the business mainstream into business school academia. In fact, it  funds training fellowships and development programmes, and helps to find initial funding for new research initiatives.  It also provides a fantastic network for the FME Fellows who are mid-career business managers who have moved into academia.

So why is it that business leaders with a wealth of business and management experience behind them feel they are at a disadvantage and lagging behind? These are the three main hurdles they face:

  1. The lack of published academic work –  they have real hands-on experience but no academic credentials.
  2. They are leaders in their own field – but if they switch to academia, they have to start from scratch or at least way down the pecking order compared to what they’re used to.
  3. While trying to teach, they also have to play catch-up, working on their PhDs or DBAs in their spare time.

What we gain from extending our business reach

By erecting these barriers, we are missing out on a huge amount of experience:

  • Research with business relevance – blending the theoretical with the practical
  • Competitive edge – in the jargon of a business strategist, “sustainable competitive advantage for the School”
  • Strengthened relationships with the outside business community
  • Students with real insight into the realities of the business world they’re about to  join.

Ask a student which is more important to them – someone with a huge back catalogue of scholarly articles or someone with hands-on, real-life, relevant business experience and I think we can guess which they’d choose.

Of course, the rigour of academic excellence is important.  The high-quality,  peer-reviewed research, the structured analysis, the intellectual debate. But does this have to be INSTEAD of business experience. Can’t we have both?

About Dr Sarah Dixon

Dr Sarah Dixon, Dean of Bradford University School of Management, completed her MBA at Kingston University, subsequently joining them where she held a variety of roles, culminating in director of postgraduate programmes for the Faculty of Business and Law. Gaining a DBA from Henley Business School in the interim, she went on to research activity at the University of Bath taking on the role of head of MSc programmes.

Her business career at Royal Dutch Shell Group included petrochemicals business management in Vienna and Moscow and later positions in strategic planning and mergers and acquisitions in London. She moved into business consulting as director of the strategy consultancy, Albany Dixon Ltd before joining the School in September 2010.

Specialties: Strategy, Organizational change, Dynamic capabilities, Organisational learning

4 thoughts on “Business experience vs academic credentials – Are Business Schools missing a trick?

  1. Neil Turner

    Many thanks for speaking at the FME Conference, and for an excellent article. I agree with you wholeheartedly, having moved from industry to academia two years ago. I have great respect for anyone who makes a success of their career in either field, but these do seem to be rather different skill sets, when in fact the parallels should be apparent. The combination of the two certainly seems to be appreciated by students and by managers we research with, and the ability to talk both languages is advantageous. This is where the FME comes in, to try and bridge that gap by supporting individuals moving from one discipline to the other. You are certainly a great example of how this can be done successfully, thank you.

  2. Olga Matthias

    Many thanks for speaking at the FME Conference. I thoroughly endorse your views about opportunities and hurdles business leaders face when leaving the corporate world and joining business school academia. We are fortunate in this country that we have an institution like the FME that can help individuals, business schools and businesses bridge this knowledge and experience gap.

    As you say, students, particularly post-experience students, find that they gain significantly from the application of the theory they are taught on their business degree to real-life examples which their lecturer can recount. It makes it easier for them to understand how theory can help them in the future rather than simply perceiving it as separate to their world.

    Let’s hope many more people progress and succeed the way you have done.

  3. Jenny Allen

    Many thanks for such an interesting insight into this issue which is one that I feel particularly connected with. I have recently commenced as an Associate at the School of Management in the HRM group having worked my way to a Head of HR position in a local NHS Trust. Whilst I wouldn’t describe myself as a ‘business leader’, I think that I do have something to offer students in terms of my workplace and practical experience and I’m very fortunate that the HRM group have given me the opportunity to demonstrate this.

    I thoroughly enjoy the teaching I’m doing and feel that I am learning a lot from the experience. I think that reciprocal learning and knowledge transfer is the key as well as the shared benefits to organisations and the university of forging such links. I certainly would support this joint approach to teaching and learning – some ideas for the future in respect of this might be the possibility of joint appointments between organisations in the management field, secondment opportunities as well as reciprocal teaching arrangements?

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