‘No. management is not a profession’ by Richard Barker, Harvard Business Review, July- August 2010

Ben Crowley2 Blogs Leave a Comment

It is interesting that, soon after the appointment of a new Dean who is a leading advocate of management as a profession, the Harvard Business Review should publish an outspoken and convincing article arguing strongly the other way; perhaps an example of vicious academic politics!

The author is a professor of Cambridge’s Judge Business School and argues that this move is a misguided attempt to develop a more ethical approach following the scandals of recent years. He suggests that the Harvard Business Review article that started the debate (by Nohria and Rakesh Khurana, another Harvard professor) is based on a misunderstanding of the differences between management and more conventional professions like law or medicine. Barker’s view is that the key difference is that management is more about the skills of integration; there is not a clear body of knowledge that needs to be acquired and certified. Learning about management is about broader experiences and this is what business educators should by trying to replicate.

He further argues that management does not have a clear code of ethics like other professions and, even if Harvard or any other body tried to develop one, there would be no means of enforcement. Ethics is rightly part of the management curriculum but has to be in context of each country and organisation; it cannot be taught in the same way as it can with the professions.

The further implication of these arguments is that business schools do themselves no favours by pretending that they can ‘qualify’ to be a manager by obtaining an MBA or attending a course. The message should instead be that management expertise requires lifelong learning and that business schools should look to position themselves as long-term learning partners rather than a ‘one stop certification shop’. They provide experiences and guidance which equip managers to deal with diverse environments; they are ‘incubators for business leadership’ rather than professional schools.

I found this argument convincing and it could be taken it even further. You could argue that this principle throws into question the effectiveness of all the generic, open enrolment programmes that business schools still see as their main foundation, particularly for those at an early career stage with limited experience to share. But I am sure that the author would not go that far and, taking a balanced view, neither would I; there will always be benefit from managers from different businesses learning and sharing together, as long as it is not seen as the only way.

The article is one sided but well-argued and after reading it, I am even more convinced that the move to professionalize management is doomed to fail. Even if the arguments were sound, Harvard and other advocates would have to decide how to set up the qualification process and everything that goes with it, and academic politics would raise its ugly head. Harvard’s rivals are hardly likely to let it lead the way and this article gives a flavour of the likely resistance. My advice to Harvard’s new Dean would be to leave this one alone and focus on the many other challenges of the post recession business environment.

Click here to read the article in full;

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