Everybody’s Business: What’s Wrong with Today’s Business Schools

By Ian I. Mitroff, Ellen S. O’Connor & Can M. Alpaslan

Business schools are one of America’s greatest inventions. They are vital to the education and training of future managers and leaders. Sadly, the invention is in serious trouble. Business schools accelerate and reinforce intellectual fragmentation, focus on the wrong units of reality, and use simplistic frameworks to understand human motivation. They compartmentalize knowledge in a narrow body of disciplines that have no explicit connection to one another and no incentives to make connections. As a result, they do not serve students, business, and society well.


Every Important Problem in Business Is a Management Problem

Business schools should teach how to manage complex, messy problems, but they don’t. Instead, the separate disciplines (Accounting, Finance, etc.) primarily teach how to tackle their own stylized exercises independently of one another. As a consequence, Management has never been recognized as the “integrating glue” that holds it all together. Little wonder why business schools are less than the product—not the sum—of their separate parts.

(A system is the product NOT the sum of its parts and interactions. The overall performance of a system is a function of the product of the performances of its parts and interactions. Thus, a perfect score of 100 on one part or interaction times zero on another results in a total systems’ score of zero.)


The Wrong Units of Reality

Business schools are currently organized around the wrong units of reality. The late pioneer of systems thinking, Russell Ackoff, said it best: “Managers don’t solve problems. They manage messes.” Another saying of Ackoff’s is equally relevant: “Nature is not organized in the same way that universities are.”

Although managers certainly divide their worlds into the wrong entities as well – e.g. narrow silos such as Accounting, HR, IT, Manufacturing, Operations, Security, etc. – the problems they face are much broader and messier than the narrow problems of the disciplines. True, managers often act as if the world were nothing but an extension of the ways in which business schools are organized. In short, business schools and business itself largely mirror one another. But why should one expect anything else when managers have largely been trained on a steady diet of pre-formulated, narrow, canned exercises?

Ackoff appropriated the word “mess” to stand for a whole SYSTEM of problems that were so interconnected such that no single problem could be taken out of the mess of which it was a part without distorting irreparably the fundamental nature of the particular problem and the entire mess as well. In short, problems don’t exist apart from all the other problems to which they are connected. As opposed to exercises, there is no such thing as self-standing, completely self-contained problems.

Why should one expect anything else when managers have largely been trained on a steady diet of pre-formulated, narrow, canned exercises?

What this means for business schools is that the problems that Accounting, Business Economics, Marketing, etc. tackle are all parts of the (Larger) Management Mess. Thus, the problems of Accounting, Business Economics, etc. are fundamentally distorted if they are researched, studied, and taught as if they were independent.

On every front of our existence we are confronted with larger and increasingly more complex messes. And yet, to an alarming degree, universities, business schools, and business itself are still organized as if their problems were well-defined, well-structured, and well-contained problems. They certainly are no longer, if they ever really were.

There is no doubt whatsoever that the traditional academic disciplines and professions shed light on important issues and problems, but they are not sufficient to illuminate the whole mess. By separating what is less separated than ever, we make messes worse. Business schools have to be reorganized around the research, study, and teaching of messes. Indeed, every human activity involves a mess of some kind.


Business schools do not dig deep enough to truly understand how and why people behave. And, what they do not understand, they can’t teach.

Superficial Emotional Content

Business schools do not dig deep enough to truly understand how and why people behave. And, what they do not understand, they can’t teach. For example, to an overwhelming extent, the kinds of psychology that are taught in business schools are superficial and simplistic. There is little mention of the fact that people are guided by deep unconscious fears and anxieties of which they have little, if any, knowledge, and over which they have even less control. The prevailing assumption is that people are largely rational calculating machines devoid of passions and sentiments. True, the burgeoning field of Behavioural Economics takes into account the fact that people do not behave like the axioms and postulates of traditional Economics. Nonetheless, it still does not incorporate deeper unconscious fears and anxieties. For example, Behavioural Economics treats “loss” purely in quantitative terms such as the loss of money. In contrast, Psychoanalysis treats “loss” as the loss of a loved one. The deepest “loss” is the loss of one’s parents, especially very early in life.

While Psychoanalysis may have started with the analysis and understanding of discrete individuals, it is no longer confined to it. Indeed, one of the most important contributions of Psychoanalysis is the analysis and understanding of complex, messy systems that range from groups to organizations to societies. Among many, Melanie Klein is indispensable in understanding some of the most important aspects of all messes, especially why more often than not, organizations fail to change, create scapegoats, and then blame them instead of confronting the real issues facing them.1

The phenomenon of splitting was one of Klein’s earliest and most important discoveries. Klein discovered that under the age of three or so, children generally split the image of the primary caretaker – typically the mother, or at least it was when Klein worked early in the 20th century – into a “good” and a “bad” mother. The “good” mother is the “good, comforting breast” that is always available on demand to meet the child’s physical and emotional needs. In contrast, the “bad” mother is the “bad, mean breast” that withholds comfort and nurturance and disciplines the child when necessary.

Under the age of three, the child is generally not mature enough to accept psychologically that the “good” and the “bad” mother are merely two aspects of the same person. But then, the child is not yet psychologically mature enough to accept his or her own “good” and “bad” sides either. If there has been trauma, then the split is prolonged. In severe cases, it may never be healed.

Some form of splitting generally persists throughout all of one’s life. From time to time, all of us split the world into “good and bad guys.” Mild forms of splitting such as analysis, that is, breaking a whole into its constituent parts, is often necessary to allow different voices to be heard and different perspectives to emerge. But to split completely is to fracture. When this happens, systems are broken in ways such that putting things back together requires much more than cognitive integration. It requires emotional integration and healing. Cognitive integration and emotional integration are two of the most important subjects that are sorely lacking from the curricula of most business school.

Cognitive integration and emotional integration are two of the most important subjects that are sorely lacking from the curricula of most business school.

We cannot emphasize enough that deep emotions are an important component of all problems and messes. As such, they not only have to be acknowledged, but attended to in appropriate ways. To do this, one first has to acknowledge their existence and origin. Only then can one understand their powerful role and function in human affairs.

If business schools are to change, they themselves must acknowledge the deep emotions that change triggers. Business schools must do as much as they can to teach their graduates how to understand and thereby manage emotions. This entails more than the study of how emotions are managed in the workplace. It entails how the faculties of business schools manage their own emotions as they affect one another, students, and their curricula.

This is easier said than done. For instance, it has been shown that it is in the direct interests of all organizations – big and small, for-profit and not-for-profit, private and public – to plan for a wide array of crises. Those organizations that plan for crises not only experience fewer of them, but they recover faster with fewer injuries and loss of income than those that do not.2 In spite of this, far too many organizations do not plan for crises because just thinking about crises raises enormous fears and anxieties. If such fears and anxieties are not acknowledged and overcome, then an organization cannot think about crises, let alone plan for them.

For the most part, business schools do not teach about crises and deep emotions, let alone the Arts, Literature, History, Psychoanalysis, and Spirituality. For this reason alone, those branches of human knowledge that do address these issues need to be integral parts of any business, let alone professional, curriculum.


Concluding Remarks

Business schools accelerate and reinforce intellectual fragmentation, focus on the wrong units of reality, and use simplistic frameworks to understand human behavior. They compartmentalize knowledge in disciplines that have no explicit connections to one another and little, if any, incentives to make important connections. For instance, the departments of Finance and Economics mainly reduce knowledge to a single school of thought such as classical economic theory, and in particular, theories of short-term, self-interested profit maximization. They then treat this single school as a “totality” and “reality,” which it is not, because it is not robust enough to account for all economic behaviour.

Business schools have to become Schools of Management or SOMs for short. Of course, many business schools already call themselves Schools of Management. In spite of this, they suffer from the same set of problems that plague business schools in general.

Every business problem, and problem in life, is essentially a management problem.

Every business problem, and problem in life, is essentially a management problem. Thus, Vision is the Management of Ideals (the Good, True, Beautiful, and Plenty). Mission is the Management of Purpose. Strategy is the Management of the Future. Corporate Finance is the Management of Capital. Marketing is the Management of Consumer Behavior. Human Resources, the Management of Organizational Behavior. Accounting, the Management of Profits and Losses as well as the Categories of Profits and Losses. Public Relations, the Management of Image, Reputation, and Perceptions.

There are other types of key management problems that business schools only address tangentially, if at all: the Management of Assumptions (i.e., Uncertainty), Management of Values, Management of Meaning(s), Management of Careers, and the life-long Management of Learning.

As we envision them, the faculty and students of SOMs would still be concerned with Accounting, Finance, Marketing, etc. but only as branches of management. They will be concerned primarily with how these functions and disciplines fit within the larger Management Mess.

One thing is clear. The world is not only more interconnected than ever before, but it is getting messier day by day.

It is ironic that business schools and schools of management have their very own messy problem of management that they have largely failed to acknowledge. The very institutions that teach management do not do a good job of managing themselves.

In sum, we either learn to manage messes, or they will mismanage us.

 This article is based on: Ian I. Mitroff, Murat Alpaslan, and Ellen O’Connor, Everybody’s Business:Reclaiming True Management Skills in Education, Palgrave McMillan, New York, 2014.

About the Authors

Ian I Mitroff is an Emeritus Professor from the Marshall School of Business and the Annenberg School of Communication at USC, Los Angeles. He is currently an Adjunct Professor at Saybrook University in San Francisco. He is also an Adjunct Professor in the School of Public Health at St. Louis University, St. Louis, Missouri. He has published 31 books, and is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association, The American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Academy of Management.

Ellen S. O’Connor (Ph.D., University of Chicago), is the author of Creating New Knowledge in Management: Appropriating the Field’s Lost Foundations (Stanford University Press, 2012). Her research focuses on the history and future of business schools and management education.

Can M. Alpaslan (Ph.D., University of Southern California), is Associate Professor of Management in the College of Business and Economics at California State University, Northridge. He is the author of Swans, Swine, and Swindlers: Coping with the Growing Threat of Mega-Crises and Mega-Messes (with Ian Mitroff, Stanford University Press, 2011), and Rethinking the Education Mess: A Systems Approach to Education Reform (with Ian Mitroff and Lindan Hill, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).


1. See The Journal of Organizational Change Management’s Special Issue on The Psychodynamics of Organizational Change Management. Vol.15, No. 4, 2001.

2. Mitroff, I. & C. M. Alpaslan (2003) “Preparing for evil.” Harvard Business Review, 81(4): 109-115.


The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.