A business school strong in research can give MBA students an edge

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The Independent Online

Research is of fundamental importance to business schools, not just because it is something their academics like to engage in, but because it gives them international muscle. Business schools with the best research reputations are the schools most likely to attract top-quality staff.

This lies behind the recent launch of a powerful new finance research centre, INSEFI Paris, a collaboration between HEC and Ecole Polytechnique. "Our first objective is to make sure we are a competitive centre of research and we hope to publish more, and better, than others in the world," explains Bernard Ramanantsoa, Dean of HEC.

HEC already had research strengths in finance and economics but needed a larger team, he says. The combined forces of both schools will produce 50-odd researchers and there are plans to recruit more next year.

"It will be easier for us now to recruit new colleagues because we will appear a more efficient research centre," says Ramanantsoa. "Already we have applications from people wanting to work here. Already it's making us more visible."

Research success is no stranger to the big US business schools. At the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business (GSB), for instance, new ideas on business-practice - including on the connection between microeconomics and corporate finance, and applying an economic approach to human behaviour - have won Nobel prizes for GSB staff and alumni six times since 1990.

UK business schools, too, are pursuing their research interests with vigour - not least because published research in high places gives universities better ratings in the UK Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), as well as in business school league tables.

Robert Owen, director of accreditation services for AMBA, advises prospective students choosing an MBA course to look for a business school that is not only accredited but research-led, with strong links with the outside world. "In general, research-led schools have better links with commerce and industry," he says.

But why does research matter for MBA students? Leeds University Business School was this year ranked third in Europe for research by the Financial Times, and Professor John Maule, director of the Centre for Decision Research at Leeds, is adamant that research provides a critical underpinning to teaching.

"It means you have lecturers who are contributing to the body of knowledge, rather than just reflecting - or regurgitating - what others have done. As a teacher that gives you a very strong edge, and a much more sophisticated and critical awareness. Your students learn to look at the strengths and weaknesses of different approaches, rather than blindly acquiring knowledge as though it is going to be applicable for ever."

A psychologist by background, Maule has been involved in research into management decision-making - looking, for instance, at the ways in which companies misperceive risks in relation to their computer systems and may end up over-spending to protect them from hackers, instead of protecting them from the more hum-drum risks of being under-powered.

"We can pass on to our students what our research has demonstrated and then broaden it out," says Maule. "A good MBA class will take up research findings and discuss them and apply them in their own contexts."

In order to succeed in international league tables, academic research needs to be published in a select number of specialist journals, the majority of which tend to be US-based. Professor Steve Haberman, deputy dean of Cass Business School, argues that this makes it more difficult for schools outside the US, as well as implying that European journals are not world-leaders. As to who actually reads these specialist journals, Haberman believes that they have limited usefulness for MBA students.

Professor Maule, at LUBS, agrees that these journals can be "too narrow and too abstract" for MBAs. Maule would like to see a better balance between the publication of pure academic research and a more applied practitioner approach. "It does worry me that we have a particular way of assessing research," he admits. "My strategy is to use both outlets: publication in academic journals, as well as a stream of more applied articles - which wouldn't necessarily count for research assessment."

Many schools require MBA students to carry out their own piece of research as part of their course - either on a business problem they have brought with them, or on a live problem posed by a company. Some times MBA students even get the chance to get involved in longer-term research projects that the school is carrying out. One student at Cass, for instance, whose own research had been in the reputation area, stayed on after his MBA to work with the school on why insurance is considered a less-attractive career than investment banking.

'I wanted to do an MBA as a way of filling some of my skill gaps'

Warren Radden, 36, studied for a one-year MBA at Cass Business School and graduated in 2005. He is now a project manager for Barclays wealth management, working on product development.

I wanted to do an MBA as a way of filling some of my skill gaps. When I chose Cass, the school's research reputation mattered to me. The majority of professors on the MBA course were actively involved in their own research - and that's important because it means they understand what's happening in the business marketplace. They were very open to discussions about their work and publications, and we were encouraged to give our opinions on their work, which was a fantastic opportunity.

One of the professors in applied knowledge management was working on a communication tool to help generate ideas called a 'dialogue sheet', and he got all the students to produce their own, which were then collated as part of his research. That sort of thing makes students feel they are adding to the school.

In the last term I carried out my own research project, sponsored by Deloitte, looking at hostile takeovers of UK public limited companies and identifying the lead indicators of hostile bids. This was the ultimate opportunity for me to look back across all the ideas and methods we had been taught on the MBA and actually use them. It was also a chance to make a difference, as there was a real business drama behind this project.

Before my MBA I had only been a user of research, not a producer. Once you've actually produced some research, you can understand some of the subtleties and some of the problems in using it.