Many people in the world of MBAs believe that courses need to lay off the theory and reconnect with reality

When it comes to recruiting staff to teach on their MBA programmes, many business schools will only consider those who come with post-doctoral qualifications and an impressive string of research publications to their name. But some in the MBA world are beginning to feel that students are getting short-changed and that they are better served by lecturers who have solid, practical experience of the business world than by cutting-edge theorists.

Is Pieter Beukman, MBA programme director at the (AMBA-accredited) University of Canterbury Christchurch, New Zealand, right when he suggests that MBAs have been "hijacked by those who have started selling more sizzle than steak"? The industry, he suggests, is "awash in snake oil, narcissism and hype" and the goal of good honest management education has been forgotten (though not at his college).

Murray Steele is a champion of business school academics who "do". Steele himself has no PhD, but since joining the staff of Cranfield School of Management in 1978 , he has held a series of directorships and is currently chairman of an HSBC company.

"Much of what I teach comes from my experience of being a chairman of a hotel company, where over 17 years I had every conceivable disaster - a crooked director, battles with venture capitalists, a financial reconstruction with the bank, two management buyouts. This is knowledge that can be imparted in the classroom, but it's knowledge that can probably only be gained by experience."

Business schools in the UK are obliged to comply with the Government's research assessment exercise (RAE ), which allocates funding according to research merit and therefore puts pressure on schools to hire faculty with top research qualifications.

Murray Steele argues that this is pushing UK schools in the direction of many business schools in the US, which tend to take younger MBA students and give them a theory-led, case study-based diet. The danger of a purely academic approach to the MBA, Steele believes, is that it does not prepare students adequately for the real challenges of the boardroom.

"If this trend continues, there will eventually be very few people in business teaching with any practical experience," he predicts.

Henley Management College prides itself on a practical approach to the MBA, and as a private graduate business school, is not subject to the RAE. Chris Bones, its new principal, was former development director for Cadbury Schweppes and describes himself as the first non-academic to run Henley.

"I don't have a PhD - I don't even have an MBA. I'm here as a practitioner," he says. "We are very much looking at how you can improve the practice of management, and there is no way you can teach that unless you have a solid understanding of practice. All our faculty are expected to work one day a week alongside practitioners. When they stand in front of a class here they will not only talk about putting their own research into practice but they will have practical stories to tell about their current work as managers."

On the other hand, Bernard Ramanantsoa, dean of HEC School of Management in France, has no RAE to worry about, but is adamant that he wants top researchers in his school. HEC hopes to increase its academic faculty from 104 to 150 within 10 years and is looking for people who know the research field well.

"On the teaching side it is very important to be on the cutting edge of research so that you are not duplicating the language of companies - which can be subject to fashion," says Ramanantsoa. "Academic knowledge provides a formalisation of what is emerging in real life, and you need this formalisation so that you can go in deeper."

But at the same time, Ramanantsoa does not underplay the value of those who "do" and is keen to increase HEC's "clinical" faculty - people from companies who spend one day a week at HEC - from 10 to 100 or more.

So what sort of academic/practical emphasis should students be looking for in an MBA? If planning to study in the UK, Robert Owen, AMBA director of accreditation services, advises students to choose a school with a good research rating (4 upwards, in RAE terms) - "because that shows good quality faculty" - but also to look at how the school teaches current issues and whether they engage practitioners. In terms of academic or practical, "The best schools do both well," he says.

Lancaster University Management School was one of only two schools to score a 6 in the last RAE. At that school, theory taught by academics on MBA courses is complemented by practice through consultancy projects, where students learn to apply it.

"Without theory, there's a danger that the course gets driven by fad and by anecdote," says Andy Bailey, director of Lancaster's executive MBA. "We encourage our students to be critical consumers of theory and to engage in rigorous analysis of what happens in organisations."

At the University of Bath School of Management, which scored a 5 in the RAE, Dr Juani Swart, academic head of MBA programmes, argues that the research used on the MBA is very practice-oriented. Researchers, for example, spend time observing practice in a company, which is presented to students as a "live" case study. Students then give their own feedback to the company and this is incorporated in the development of new strategy.

"In this way, the learning experience will itself translate theory into practice," claims Swart, "and excellent research provides excellent teaching."

Sarah Willingham: 'It was very important to me to be on a practical MBA'

Sarah Willingham, 31, completed an MBA at Cranfield School of Management in 2003. She is now managing director of a group which runs a rapidly expanding chain of Indian restaurants.

I went to Cranfield knowing exactly what I wanted to do: buy the Bombay Bicycle Club restaurant in London and create the first chain of Indian restaurants in the UK. So it was very important for me to be on quite a practical MBA course, where I would be surrounded by people who had experienced what I was talking about, and who could advise me on fundraising, putting together a business plan, looking at different types of finance.

I didn't want lecturers who said, "This is what the books say about business plans." I wanted people who could say, "Look out for this or that pitfall, let's see how we can work around it."

At Cranfield we didn't just look at case studies. The lecturers, some of whom do big consultancy jobs, would go back to their own experience. This adds another dimension - and it adds a lot of credibility. We still covered everything theory-wise, but I felt there was more there to back up the theory.

I got fantastic advice from people at Cranfield. Some of the lecturers opened lots of doors for me and introduced me to their own contacts. It really gave me the confidence to go ahead with my business.

Chris Crockford: 'Lancaster had a nice balance of practical and research'

Chris Crockford, 33, has just completed the first term of a one-year MBA at Lancaster University Management School.

I had already done a PhD in a branch of digital video. I wanted to look at ways of commercialising my research and needed an MBA course to give me a grounding in business, with a view to working in senior management.

On some MBA courses you are taught the ABCs of how industry works. But it's another thing to be taught where current research is leading in specific fields. The researchers at Lancaster are concerned not only with the ABCs but they are formulating the Ds and Es for the next five to 10 years.

At Lancaster, we are taught a nice balance between practical and research. The focus of the research is business-led.

If you're a student who wants to think more critically and form opinions of your own, then I think you need a research approach on an MBA course. It develops your ability to think, and what you learn in one subject you find yourself applying in other subjects.

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