The PhD is losing its currency for business leaders

Higher education in continental Europe needs to overcome its prejudices about DBAs if it is to meet demand from today’s senior managers, says Michel Kalika

十二月 29, 2021
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In continental Europe, the PhD is still widely considered the default next step for leaders wanting to extend their knowledge beyond an MBA. But the complexity of challenges faced by organisations today means that senior businesspeople have increasingly specific and rather different study needs. These can’t always be met by conventional doctorates such as the PhD – let alone short CPD or executive education programmes.

The latter do a great job of providing leaders with pre-packaged solutions on specific topics. But they are less suitable for those who want to take a step back and generate specialised knowledge and expertise for the benefit of both their organisations and themselves as practising managers.

On the other hand, PhDs are great for people who want to follow an academic career or teach at a business school. But they are less suited to business leaders dealing with increasingly fast-paced, uncertain and complex challenges (only exacerbated by the pandemic) that require them to work beyond the confines of a highly specialised academic discipline.

On a secondary level, many senior business leaders desire theory and broader insights into their business practice. They are looking for guidance from expert academics and opportunities to interact with other like-minded leaders. Achieving all this requires a programme that delivers broad, divergent and multidisciplinary knowledge.

This is why many leaders in Europe are now turning to the professional doctorate, the DBA, as a more suitable option. Other than the opportunity to focus on an existing problem in their professional practice and to find a way to address it, the core purpose of the DBA is to help practitioners have their capabilities recognised and publish and share managerial knowledge based on their experience. It can serve as a potent development tool, helping them consider which aspects of their identity are potentially blocking the self-progress and change required to find solutions.

Despite all this, universities in continental Europe have been slow to offer DBAs. In France, for example, Grenoble School of Management introduced the first programme in 1984, but it wasn’t until 2008 that the first French university, Paris Dauphine, offered an executive DBA. Traditional doctorates still get the most airtime because their more philosophical approach is what the sector understands best. It is estimated that French business schools and universities are some 25 to 30 years behind the UK in terms of DBA provision.

The DBA is seen as very resource-intensive, and therefore not a priority for state-funded universities. What is perhaps more surprising is the lack of interest from fee-paying continental business schools. Given their unique focus on business and management, the DBA would allow them to engage differently with business leaders.

While some academics may find it hard to adopt the unfamiliarly practical mindset required to supervised DBAs, others are champing at the bit. Here at the Business Science Institute, for instance, we have had calls from faculty members from elsewhere actively looking for DBA teaching or supervisory experience because this sort of deep interaction with practitioners was not on offer at their home university. Lars Meyer-Waarden, professor of marketing at Toulouse School of Management and academic coordinator of our executive DBA in Thailand and Vietnam, says he finds it “stimulating to conduct applied research on hot topics concerning organisations right now – in marketing and technologies such as AI, the internet of things and smart cities”.

Students seem keen too. We have seen numerous examples of people who have transferred from a PhD to a DBA because the former did not meet their needs. From students’ perspective, the DBA offers an intensive active learning experience that offers unique critical perspectives on their practice. This enables them to navigate through ambiguity and complexity to find solutions to “wicked” and very specific business challenges.

From an employer’s point of view, DBAs develop specific practice-related skills and outcomes that are absent from a traditional PhD. European governments, too, are demanding a research degree that is more relevant to the needs of business and economic growth, even if many countries still fail to give formal recognition to the DBA as a doctoral-level qualification. Internationally, quality assurance and accreditation agencies have generally embraced more work-related and practice-oriented criteria in doctoral learning. DBAs can therefore support institutions’ accreditation initiatives, if done properly.

But they could do so much more for institutions – and learners. There are now more than 60,000 MBA graduates in the UK and Europe from Association of MBA-accredited institutions alone. The market for further study is huge. As these graduates become senior leaders over time and their needs develop, could the DBA become the new MBA?

Michel Kalika is president of the Business Science Institute, an independent international academic organisation that runs an executive DBA programme for senior managers from nearly 50 countries.



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Reader's comments (11)

The problem with the vast majority of DBAs (COI -- I am currently a DBA Director) is that they are -- like MBAs -- highly variable degrees in terms of what is expected and the quality of the supervision. In many cases, they are simply vanity degrees (as a colleague in China once said, "you could drop a bomb here: -- were were in a restaurant -- "and 80% of the people you would hit would have an MBA") and are meant to distinguish the holder from the hordes of MBAs out there and give them the ability to call themselves doctor (no different than those in the UK who use honors and fellowships on their business cards and email signatures) or fall into the category of "PhD-lite" degrees. Second, the degrees are cash cows when compared to other programmes and serve as yet one more cross subsidy to other programmes. You can see the difference when you compare where they sit within a school's structure. If the DBA is an 'Executive Programme' offering it is usually of lower quality and there to generate margins. If it is part of the doctoral programme offering, it usually has higher standards and if it cross subsidizes anything it is usually the PhD programme. If it is 'on-line' or the only doctoral degree offered by the business school it is usually a signal of lower quality and the likelihood that it is anything but a cash machine rises. Ditto if the programme is stand-alone and not mixed with the PhD offerings of the institution. When we did a review of our DBA programme last year, one of the biggest requests was more interaction with PhD students. Also, while our DBAs want to do work after the DBA, this was way down the list of priorities of most of our students -- their higher priorities related to personal fulfillment -- most of them had high level jobs and didn't see that a degree would jump start their career since that was well established. So while the DBA can be a doctoral degree that is differentiated from the PhD, the reality is that it is a highly variable beast and its lack of recognition is driven by the fact that many places treat it as a volume programme and a substitute for the PhD rather than a complement. To those getting the degree, it is very much buyer beware.
Very interesting insights Tim .Many thanks for that. HOWEVER, I feel everything you mentioned also aplies to PHD except ?? Ie variable,vanity
The points highlighted by Timothy are very relevant. And unfortunately, some courses marketed as DBAs are not doctoral programmes! The question of the diversity of the quality of the programme is a tricky one that concerns not only DBAs. And one key part of the answer to this is just like for other programmes, namely whether the DBA programme has achieved accreditation (e.g. AMBA, EFMD accredited DBA, etc.). The question of the cash cow is directly related to the previous point. If the DBA has been designed as an MBA+ (often the case in China to use Timothy's example), it is a cash cow. But when it has been designed as a genuine doctoral programme for managers with well-structured and high-quality individual supervision, along with group research seminars, small numbers of students per group, it can no longer be considered to be a cash cow given the resources required to do all of this properly. For example, our mission at Business Science Institute is guided by accessibility and diversity, so we are quite happy to open cohorts on our international sites with fewer than 5 participants. Concerning the comparison with the PhD, the answer can be found in the EQUAL guidelines, which clearly distinguish between a programme focusing on preparing future faculty for academic work in a higher education environment, and a programme designed for managers enabling them to take a step back from their work, and critically reflect on their practice, etc.
Another important issue is how DBAs differ to PhDs as far as thesis supervision is concerned. One of the challenges for supervisors working with an experienced business or management practitioner is how to tease out (externalise) what is very often embedded tacit knowledge so that it ultimately generates impact. This requires a very special relationship between the participant and their supervisor(s), and a mindset (not necessarily coupled with prior business experience, although this can be useful) that is conducive to a form of 'peer-to-peer' collaboration between experts from different domains. Many of the DBA supervisors I work with talk not only about the intrinsic satisfaction they get from feeling they have contributed to generating impact in business, but alos how much they have themselves learned as academics from the experience of working so closely with practitioners. A number of these collaborations also lead to joint publications.
The debate opened by Tim is indeed important because the inclination is always to compare the DBA to the PhD but the DBA should not be considered as a second best or a sub PhD. Just as the Exec MBAs have found their way alongside academic programs for undergraduates, the DBA must be able to do so as well because the profiles of the participants in a DBA program are not of the same level and neither are their requirements. From a long experience in international academia, but also in executive education, I would say that a classical PhD is like figure skating, with its imposed figures calling for rigor and reproduction, while the challenge of DBAs is different. The ambitions of knowledge production are the same, but the approach is of a different nature, since it aims to establish in a rigorous manner the skills and expertise already acquired through professional experience. In a word, the DBA could be described as "Doctorate as practice". The "Strategy as practice" theory has shown us that the content of strategies is not only defined ex ante, through cold reflection and the affirmation of major orientations, but also as a result of the way in which the strategy-making processes in organizations are concretely operationalized. It is the same thing in DBA: their quality is due to the particular nature of the thesis elaboration process where the supervisor / doctoral-student-manager interface is part of a relation between two peers - each professional but with different academic or managerial experience - and not in a maieutic pedagogical relationship of Professor to student as it is the case in the PhD
I agree. PhD in management have become an entry for teaching in business schools more than a creation of knowledge for environmental - social - managerial issues. A lack of diversity, a lack of relevance
As the academic coordinator of an online English language DBA programme based in continental Europe, which attracts professionals from all over the world, the benefits of a DBA are clear to our doctoral students. They face complex issues, which they progressively learn to address rigorously through our academic input as supervisors. Our doctoral teaching is of the same level and quality as the traditional doctoral programmes (PhDs) I have been involved in at UK universities. It helps them understand and then apply a scientific approach to their real-world problems. They regularly talk to us about how much this triggers their critical thinking, and supports their personal and intellectual development. At the same time, it guides them in addressing difficult questions faced in their professional practices.
From the perspective of a year 2 DBA student located in Germany, a DBA program provides me with the possibility to dive into an academic community and learn the domain, the paradigms and methods of research. Consequently, interaction with scholars can be at another level from now on for me. Furthermore, it enables thorough learning: DBA students have to present and ground their practical problems in an abstract context and scientific literature which forces a different perspective on the problems at hand and enables resources and solutions otherwise tacit, as splatt64 put it. The necessity to then transfer these learnings back into concrete managerial recommendations after a full panorama of peer-to-peer reviews with doctoral students (DBA and PhD) and, yes, peer-to-peer reviews with professors, allows novel insights. This multi-year exercise is structured, thorough and accompanied by an academic supervisor. Finally, it allows me to keep my job rather than going on a part-time assistant role in a German university, which is usually the norm for PhD students here. And a word as to academic quality: DBA theses are public, should be published as a monograph or via academic peer-to-peer reviewed articles. This alone keeps one on one's toes regarding scientific rigor. Factor in the multiple scandals regarding dissertations of people of public interest in the German press recently, and everyone who pursues or supervises a doctoral thesis should be aware that it is both the title and the potential public reputation which may otherwise be at stake. Therefore, academic rigor and quality are paramount and expected of such programs.
I'm glad you picked up on my comments about tacit knowledge bost70. So much of what managers truly know about their work is difficult to externalise, or to pass on to others. The DBA does this very well, by a) helping managers to tease out this knowledge and 'give it a name', which subsequently means they become better at transferring what they know, and b) gives them opportunities to share this knowledge more formally beyond the thesis in books, articles, media appearances, etc.
As a manager of face to face and online German-language DBA programmes, I agree that the potential for professional doctorates is enormous. Unlike in France, the title of 'Doctor' is highly coveted by professionals who are not in academia, and is increasingly easing access to top management positions. However, traditional PhDs at German universities are definitely not suited to managers' needs because they require doctoral students to take full-time positions at their university over a number of years. For business organisations, there could be huge benefits from professional doctorates, especially since the current business context and its lot of rather difficult questions requires some deep and critical thinking by managers. More specifically, this type of doctoral programme sits nicely with Germany's historical focus on vocational education, although at doctoral level there is still some work to be done in bringing together business and academia.
The DBAs are training courses of excellence for professionals who have held positions with important responsibilities. It allows a hybridization between this experience and the development of scientific capacity which is a source of great potential for society.