About a year ago, a journalist asked me: “The current crisis; you could see it as the failure of corporate governance in general, and boards of directors in specific. What radical new ideas do we see coming out of business schools in terms of how we could organise governance and boards better?”
I answered him what I thought was the truth: “Ehm…. not much really”.
Last week, I was in Prague, for the Annual Meeting of the Strategic Management Society; a bunch of business school professors talking about their research. I attended a session which featured a panel of five senior professors who specialise in governance and boards. I couldn’t resist asking them the same question as the journalist had posed to me: “What radical new ideas do you have in terms of how we could perhaps organise governance and boards better?”
Their answer was basically the same as mine, with equal levels of eloquence: “Ehm… not much really”.
In fact, after a slightly stunned silence, one professor replied to me: “What do you think?” (the reply every professor gives to a student when s/he does not have an answer available), where the second one answered “boards is not really where the action is”. And that was that.
Somehow, I have to admit, I did not expect a real answer – just as I did not have one. And that is because business school professors seldom have an opinion. We are all trained – in our research, through rigorous PhD programmes and years of socialization – to not make assertions but to only make claims that are thoroughly proven, by solid empirics and rigorous theory. And I applaud and adhere to that; I like evidence. However, at some point, you need to take that evidence and develop an opinion. And that’s where it usually stalls, in business schools.
Because people are not used to say anything without evidence, they end up saying nothing at all. That’s because when it comes to questions such as “how could we organise this better?” the evidence is always going to be imperfect.
It reminded me of what a paediatric neurologist once told me: “What I do is part art; part science. I know all the scientific evidence and treatments and medication, but at the end of the day, every child and case is unique, and you have to make a choice and an develop an opinion”.
In business schools, we’re more likely to let the child die. Since we have no perfect evidence on what the exact treatment should be, we end up doing nothing.
Hence, that the five professors did not express an opinion did not really surprise me. But what I later realised, and what did surprise me – although I blame myself for my naivety – is that not only are you not expected to have an opinion; you’re not even supposed to want to have one.
Even raising the question and asking for an opinion is considered suspect, illegitimate and un-academic. As business school academics, we describe and seek to understand reality, but are not supposed to want to alter and improve it. Which is a shame, because sometimes I feel the world of business – and the world in general – could do with a bit of improvement.
“I know what I want, I have a goal, an opinion. If God lets me live, I shall not remain insignificant, I shall work in the world and for mankind! And now I know that first and foremost I shall require courage and cheerfulness!” Anne Frank, April 11, 1944