Towards the social business school

smart systems

This post is a summary of a devastating critique that the great systems thinker Russell Ackoff made of business schools twenty years ago, why he’s still mainly right, and why social technologies now provide us with phenomenal possibilities for the Social Business School – an alternative and highly effective approach to business education.

Stumbling on forgotten books

Just when I thought I’d said all I wanted to about foundation thinkers whose old insights remain razor-sharp and applicable for businesses adapting to warp-speed technological developments, I stumble on something so outrageous and so spot on that I couldn’t wait to tell you all about it.

I don’t know about you but I find it too easy to buy books on my Kindle at the point where they interest me – for reading later but of course often don’t get around to it. The result is that I’ve got a treasure trove of books I forgot I’d bought. And so last night I found myself scanning my books and re-discovered Ackoff’s The Democratic Corporation.

I wasn’t surprised to see it there – how businesses organise for co-ordinated autonomy is one of my long-time interests. Skimming through the chapters was disappointing. The book felt dated, located as it was in the mid 90’s preoccupation with how US manufacturing was failing to keep up with Japanese innovations. I’d read nothing that grabbed me and was tempted to skip the epilogue. What was the point?

Ackoff lets rip

Well, bam! It was as though Ackoff had decided he’d written the wrong book. The energy, passion and – dare I say it – vitriol in the epilogue’s critique of business schools was unexpected. I wish I could just cut and paste most of the epilogue but fair use and copyright restrictions will not let me do that but here are a few choice excerpts. He sets the scene for what’s coming by saying:

“The transformations of corporations discussed in the preceding chapters clearly require informed, if not inspired, leadership. Unfortunately, we cannot look to business schools to provide the required leaders. These schools are bastions of dynamic conservatism that submit to only minimal changes required to maintain the illusion of their relevance. They become less and less relevant as the rate of change in, and complexity of, the global economy and society at large increases.

He goes on to say that Harvard Business School “receives the brunt of the criticism” because it is so emulated. He assembles quotes from other critics, including the humourist, Art Buchwald who is reported to have written in 1973 that:

“The real villain of the oil crisis is the Harvard Business School … Almost every Arab sheik now in charge of his country’s oil policy was trained at Harvard.”

And coming slap bang up to date, you could say the same thing about the global financial crisis. The financial sector hoovers up MBAs from ‘top’ business schools, those clever people who brought us collateralized debt obligations(CDOs).

Here’s a final swipe from Peter Drucker:

“The great trouble with a Harvard-type program is the arrogance it breeds. Students do not learn how difficult it is to accomplish anything.”

Ackoff’s detailed critique

Ackoff is far from alone in his criticisms. I thoroughly recommend Sumatra Ghoshal’s Bad Management Theories Are Destroying Good Management Practices, which was written after Enron. And it does seem that there has been widespread soul-searching following the recent global financial crisis.

But as far as I can see, Ackoff’s comment from 20 years ago still stands – that business schools “submit to only minimal changes required to maintain the illusion of their relevance.” And that’s because, as Ackoff says, “many of the deficiencies of business schools are deficiencies in formal education in general, education of all types at all levels.”

There’s the heart of the matter as far as he is concerned – industrialised dissemination of information and knowledge that has little to do with the generation or spread of understanding and wisdom. I think that is now too sweeping and somewhat unfair. He did lob his grenade at business schools twenty years ago.

The innovative approach to business education described further down the post was developed at a UK university – and I know of other universities currently innovating their approach to business education.

But he’s right, I think, in saying that most schools mirror factories, systems of teaching – not learning – where students are treated as raw materials and where formal education is reduced to discrete and disconnected parts, including schools, curricula, grades, subjects, courses, lectures, lessons and exercises. Teaching outputs are quantified in levels, grades and degrees.

He then goes on to say what education ought to be – a unifying, reflective and active experience where people learn to formulate problems and options. Ackoff concludes that:

“Throughout their formal education, students are evaluated by their ability to solve problems given to them. Therefore, it is not surprising that they go out into the real world assuming that problems will continue to be given to them. They are in for a rude awakening … problems have to be taken, extracted from complex situations.”

What follows is the most constructive and useful bit of the whole epilogue – issues involved in helping people to think about complex problems and puzzles.  And this is where I leave Ackoff. Have a look for yourself if you are interested.


Reading Ackoff reinforced why I dislike MOOCs. All that free content? And from Big Business Schools? What’s not to like? Although MOOCs are maturing and developing, I think that they are still mostly using new technologies to deliver old-style learning with a focus on:

  •  a pre-determined curriculum
  • ‘sage on the stage’ lectures delivered by subject experts
  • supported by online tutorials.

What the MOOC explosion says to me is that we’re using social technologies to educate ourselves – not just for entertainment. And this of course is good news. But I think the real opportunity for self-driven learning is in the ‘C’ bit of MOOC, ‘c’ for conversation and connecting as well as courses.


By learning by doing, talking and reflecting together. The process is messy. I know – we developed this approach at a UK university. Rather than the primary focus being on the curriculum, the Open Online Conversations version of a MOOC is on practical work activities. Here’s how it works:

  • Find something you know can be done better or differently at work
  • Investigate and scope a project to do the thing you want to do better or differently — and    the experience provides the opportunity for conversation, reflection and learning together (this is Ackoff’s learning to “take problems from complex situations”
  • Content is still important but is used in a just-in-time-way to help think about options for action. Regurgitation of content is certainly not the focus of this approach. Content is instead accessed when it is needed — to do something — and assessed for usefulness (or not)

Value of open online conversations

Far from being a distraction from ‘real work’, online conversations via tweeting, blogging, and a host of other social tools can make us more effective. It is in these conversations that we discover insight and sources that help us make sense of new knowledge as it emerges.

The people we connect to online extend the possibilities open to us for learning — they expand our innovating and problem-solving capabilities to a huge degree. They also let us break away from institutionalised work and escape the confines of organisational structure.

And the bonds forged online can be strong. Anne McCrossan, CEO of Visceral Business, points out that the social connections and the support communities we forge online are made through choice. She observes that “affinity is stronger than structure.”

And reflective conversations are the basis of an alternative approach to business education – learning to think together and from each other, based on experience, experiments and asking questions. Open online conversations nurture 21st century skills by:

  • Extending the informal relationships that people have always needed for fun, social support and learning
  • Letting us discover who knows what
  • Enabling us to ask our network for recommendations
  • Providing opportunities to find serendipitous and timely information
  • Helping us to make sense of and see patterns in flows of information
  • Helping us to practice disagreeing without being disagreeable
  • Helping us to practice asking questions, thinking critically and learning to challenge the status quo
  • Building our social capital — being known for our expertise, helpfulness and quality and influence of our network connection
  • Enabling us to self-organise
  • Letting us experiment
  • Letting us bounce ideas off each other
  • Giving us the opportunity to learn from and be inspired by others
  • Having playful conversations
  • Giving us courage and emotional support when we are fearful or overwhelmed by doing something new

Final thoughts

Business schools are not going away and although there are signs of some of them changing their ways, I still think Ackoff’s criticisms are still largely valid. But I hope I’ve shown that we now have an opportunity to adopt a radically different approach to business education – one that can flourish outside of business schools and formal education. Business schools are no longer the arbiter of knowledge.

And they have a long way to go in shifting from the industrialised dissemination of knowledge – which in fact is what I think MOOCs are in their current format.

What Ackoff’s critique clearly does is to link transforming organisations and working practices with business education. I expect to see this issue come in the Enterprise 2.0 Summit here in Paris over the next couple of days. We’ll see.

P.S. I’m really enjoying the #20s conference. It just occured to me that the Smart Work Company is striving to build a Social Business School. Social Business – get it :-)

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