Peter Brown looks at the importance of management gurus to business schools and their students

He was the business guru's guru. CK Prahalad, who died in April, had two great theories: first, that successful corporations needed a "core competency"; and second, that there was "a fortune at the bottom of the pyramid" – in other words, that the world's poor could be seen as a huge market.

With these ideas, Prahalad, who taught strategy at the Stephen M Ross School of Business, Michigan, genuinely changed the way corporations did business. And in so doing, he did more than many academic researchers, says Mark de Rond, of Cambridge Judge Business School. "Too often we write for people like us – a small and relatively insular community," says De Rond. "Gurus are here to remind us of the importance of research that makes a practical difference to organisations."

Gurus tend to be brilliant speakers, writers, thinkers or performers. Very few are all four. "There's a whole industry of consultants going round peddling second-hand gurus," says David Sims, of Cass Business School. "Students hear about them on training courses and some come here believing that a particular thinker is the answer to everything. We encourage people to be aware of a range of views, then think it out sensibly for themselves."

Books by management gurus, he says, are like diet books. You buy one, find it indigestible, put it on the shelf – then buy another one.

"In the world of business thinking, there is a lot of froth," agrees Des Dearlove, who with Stuart Crainer runs The Thinkers 50, a website that ranks management thinkers. Nonetheless, there are a few people addressing serious issues, and Prahalad, Dearlove says, was unique. "He combined the intellectual detachment of a business school professor with the humanity of a social activist and the pragmatism of a chief executive."

Prahalad was one of only two thinkers (the other being Peter Drucker) to have topped the ranking on consecutive occasions. So whom will MBA staff and students turn to next?

"Malcolm Gladwell is in pole position," Dearlove says. "He came second in the most recent Thinkers 50. He's certainly a big intellect and a brilliant storyteller – but does he have anything really profound to tell us?"

Other well-known gurus include Tom Peters, Gary Hamel and Harvard's Michael Porter. All are established "brands" with a "platform" – people know their central messages. But they have been around for decades. For some newer thinking, Dearlove points to three Nobel Prize-winning economists: Muhammad Yunus, Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz. He also likes Costas Markides, at London Business School, who is looking at how business ideas can be used to solve seemingly intractable problems such as drug addiction and street crime.

Successful businessmen form a powerful sub-branch of gurudom. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Sir Richard Branson, Jack Welch, Warren Buffett – all seem persuasive in print. "Yes, they have the war stories," says Sims. "But people who succeed don't always know how they did it. It's a bit like asking a concert pianist, as they come off stage, 'How did you manage that?'"

Gladwell, he says, is worth reading because he explodes myths about how people become good at things. "When you look in detail, it boils down to hard work and practice, or maybe being born into the right community at the right place and time."

But Sims's favourite is Charles Handy. "He's a guru for a postmodernist age, an anti-guru in a way. Whereas most gurus say 'Depend on me', Handy always has a subtext which says: 'Don't'."

A fresh candidate is Nouriel Roubini, of New York's Stern School of Business, one of the very few who predicted the recession. His book Crisis Economics: a Crash Course in the Future of Finance has become a bestseller. But not everyone buys the idea of change for its own sake. "The history of management gurus is littered with false prophets," says Chris Bones, dean of Henley Business School. "We should stop looking for the new messiah, and start looking at which practitioners are doing well and why."

Anyone looking for a timeless contribution, he says, should return to the work of Drucker. "He will remind anyone interested in management of the fundamentals."

At Ashridge, in Hertfordshire, the chief executive, Kai Peters, likes what he calls the innovation crew. "Both Clay Christensen at Harvard and Eric von Hippel at Massachusetts Institute of Technology do interesting work which is sensible, accessible and academically respected." Peters also likes the psychology-based leadership and learning folk such as Howard Gardner, Karl Weick and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

Some business schools have such faith in their gurus that they adopt their ideas. Freakonomics, by the Chicago economist Steven D Levitt and the journalist Stephen J Dubner, has sold 4 million copies worldwide. The book argues that economics is essentially about incentives. One direct result, if you are a student at The University of Chicago Booth School of Business, is that you start with a fixed number of points and bid for the classes you most want to take.

W Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne, of Insead, the French business school, produced Blue Ocean Strategy, another bestseller, which advocates creating new demand in an uncontested market space. An entire institute at Insead is now devoted to Blue Ocean thinking. The Tuck School of Business in New Hampshire, USA, has a global leadership centre founded by Vijay Govindarajan, whose idea of "reverse innovation" stems from his study of demand in underdeveloped markets.

Most top schools can boast at least one such cutting-edge idea. At Stanford Graduate School of Business, the hot topic is "design thinking" for problem-solving. And at the Saïd Business School, Oxford, Linda Scott has developed the "Double-X Economy" concept of women's empowerment in emerging markets.

But gurudom has its perils. Knives are perpetually (and rightly) out for any perceived inconsistencies. Gladwell has been described by a critic as scuttling around his chosen field like "a distracted crab on speed". Even Prahalad's theories have been picked apart.

For MBA students looking for inspiration, however, one favoured guru will always have the answer to all problems. The question is: which one?

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