Work transformations and the teaching of management: towards the end of business schools (as they are?)

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Academics in the area of management are often invited to draw managerial implications about their research. This is often part of a section called “managerial implications” or “implications for practice” (in scientific journals). Most of the time, this results in extremely expected and unsurprising things. Beyond that, I have always found strange to put myself in the shoes of a manager… who will never read my article.

Research about work and workplace transformations could be a unique opportunity to make a key managerial contribution: rethinking management teaching.

What is the focus of most teachings today? I would say structures, tools, techniques, procedures and projects.

What is already a key lesson of most research about work and workplace transformations, the so-called end of waged employment, and the generalization of entrepreneurship? The new line necessary to follow the deep dynamic of capitalism, society and management is more and more grounded into practices and activities themselves. People manage a set of activities flowing and imbricated with continuously evolving other activities. A couple of days ago, a former student of a diploma of my university told me a major surprise he had at the beginning of his career. He was recruited by a major consulting company. He expected to be part of this company and at some point, to come to a place where the company would be. But very quickly, he was relocated in the open space of a customer working itself with several suppliers, some of them independent workers. He was required sometimes to join these second line of customers, and to be part of unexpected projects related to his own project (far from his usual open space, where he had no precise work location). He was sent far from Paris and was asked to join a coworking space, and melt with the community of his coworking space. He spent also more and more time working from home or during travels. At some point, it became impossible to say what was the team he was working with.

What is the key line to tell the story of this individual who probably epitomizes work and workplace transformations? Probably a set of practices and activities.

What is the focus of most teachings today? Structures, managerial techniques, procedures and projects. The pedagogic archetype is a massive company, in the business district (La Défense for the case of Paris), with infrastructures meant to lead to it, clear cut building and spaces hosting people moving in and out, and a clear portfolio of projects (owned by the company). Managers do something somewhere

In contrast, my former student is doing something everywhere. He has no address anymore. He has an activity. He is not attached to a set of managerial techniques. Most of them are outsourced to a digital space. As stated by Michel Serres, he is condemned to intelligence, memory and technicity being more and more delegated to the digital space.

My former student and today’s managers are involved in logics which are far beyond those of projects* stricto sensu. They are required to improvise continuously. Bricolage (which I see far from its usual pejorative connotations) becomes the rule. With the emergence of business models based on value-co-creation, activity is not expected to have a beginning and an end. There are no clear-cut distinctions between customers and producers. Managers are stuck in present time, and procedures or techniques are largely melted into activity.

It is time to (re)focus management teaching, not on a doing (in general), but on the new sets of activities a manager is expected to do. It is time to break the relationship with any expected context. Context could be anywhere, every time.

Maybe it is also time to modify the location of our teachings as well. Are business schools and their teaching classes relevant anymore? I do not think so. Yes, there are still 26 million wage earners in France, but I also see that a major trend seems to lead elsewhere. We should come closer to where and when activities now happen. We should relocate part of our students in coworking spaces or maker spaces. We should involve them directly in entrepreneurial projects (the new French status of “étudiants-entrepreneurs” should be easier to link to these study conditions). At some point, I wonder if some collaborative spaces (in the heart of the new area where work transformations are taking place) will not become a fatal competition for many business school. I wonder if the so-called partial Uberisation of management teaching (and managerial research) will not happen this way. Former coworkers could be used more systematically to teach current coworkers (and bring relevant networks with them). Same for the entrepreneurs or makers hosted by these spaces who could (and are already in some places) be involved in extremely effective coaching activities.

One key thing I see which makes all this plausible is (among others) public policies, and their search for effectiveness. What a great context for apprenticeship (in particular the French “apprentissage”)! Most of all, what a great way to modularize teaching activities around places and building blocks likely to be changed very quickly by means of a set of 10, 20, 30 places (in the same city) involved in teaching activities as close as possible to managerial activities. What a great opportunity to be at the heart of learning, and to provide in vivo contexts for students. Of course, academic community would need to take care of the HR management implications of this policy. They could quickly become part of any adjustments…

Teaching would be more than ever based on horizontal collaborations. The teacher would become more an animator. Diplomas could be replaced by activity-based learning instead of formal examinations and certification of skills enacted and performed by the exam itself, or reports, games, superficial coaching activities.

Yes, this is what I would dream to say in the “managerial implication” section of my articles. This time, I would be sure that at some point, a real practitioner would read it. This practitioner would simply my office neighbor: another academic.


* The etymology of the word project is very interesting. Here is the result of a request on Etymonline: c. 1400, “a plan, draft, scheme,” from Latin proiectum “something thrown forth,” noun use of neuter of proiectus, past participle of proicere “stretch out, throw forth,” from pro- “forward” (see pro-) + combining form of iacere (past participle iactus) “to throw” (see jet (v.)).

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