Practice intelligence and the problem with Business School learning

Practice intelligence and the problem with Business School learning

Practice Intelligence

Why management and leadership development should be focussing on practice intelligence.  

Fourteen years ago this year Henry Mintzberg published his book ‘Managers not MBAs: A hard look at the soft practice of managing and management development‘, in which Mintzberg challenged the prevailing view that the recipient of the MBA was by default not only a rising star, but a fully formed and trained manager.

Mintzberg recognised that just giving managers or even proto-managers a series of academic tools, thinking structures and models will not produce rounded relevant managers and leaders. Mintzberg argued that the MBA model was severely broken…


This post is based on a research briefing sent to members in August 2017



 The trouble with “management” education

“The trouble with “management” education is that it is business education and leaves a distorted impression of management. Management is a practice that has to blend a good deal of:

  1. Craft (experience) with
  2. Art (insight) and
  3. Science (analysis).

An education that overemphasises the science encourages a style of managing I call “calculating” or, if the graduates believe themselves to be artists, as increasing numbers now do, a related style I call “heroic.” Enough of them, enough of that. We don’t need heroes in positions of influence any more than technocrats. We need balanced, dedicated people who practise a style of managing that can be called “engaging.” Such people be-lieve that their purpose is to leave behind stronger organisations, not just higher share prices. They do not display hubris in the name of leadership.” (Mintzberg 2004).



Management practice is a blend


Just six years ago Warren Bennis concluded that “…the orthodoxy (of business education in general and the MBA in particular) hasn’t changed very much since the ’04 article, except perhaps to have gotten worse”.


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A new study 

A new paper just published argues that “long standing critics of business schools will perhaps not be surprised by the persistence of the irrelevance point of management education and research.”

A recent article by the Financial Times concluded that there isn’t “a really good business school anywhere on earth.” And that the MBA and business school education is largely irrelevant in preparing students to improve their and their organisation’s practice, rather than being ardent believers of an ‘academic religion’.

The issue, the researchers argue, is that the fundamental beliefs and values that business and management is based on needs to be ‘flipped’. The problem is that academic theory and methods are in direct conflict and incompatible with what is termed ‘Practice intelligence’.




Practice intelligence

Practice intelligence means the ability to investigate and analyse the issue at hand and the wider context that the issue and any solution will be situated in and blend this with evidence-based knowledge and understanding. Practice intelligence highlights the importance of an active problem-solving approach and the crucial skills of imagination and creativity.

Practice intelligence is a blend of:

  1. Reality seeking,
  2. Evidence-based practice coupled with
  3. Imagination,
  4. Ingenuity,
  5. Resourcefulness,
  6. Insight,
  7. Enterprise and
  8. Inspiration.


Business and management education is out of touch, out-of-date and lacking in innovation

The direct conflict the authors see is that business education is largely passive learning coupled with exercises to consolidate the learning whilst the skills needed in a complex, ever shifting and largely unpredictable and uncertain business environment are those of creativity, imagination, observation, listening, sense making and seeking and the ability to seek and use feedback to ‘nudge’ solutions along.

The business school educated manager and leaders are often extolled to seek profit and competitive advantage as their primary focus. The paper argues that more globally responsible, articulate and visionary leaders are needed these days. Further the material these students are learning is based on research, which is often not that up-to-date and bears the hallmarks of historical thinking and mind-sets. This is unsurprising given that most research takes years to complete and get to publication and that the curricula of many programmes change little from year to year, the programme leaders being too busy to keep up-to-date with the latest thinking, research and contexts.

There has been a pretty constant barrage of criticism aimed at business schools for being out of touch, out-of-date and lacking in innovation themselves.


Business Schools are out of touch
The new business and management education model

The authors propose a new strategy for developing managers and business leaders focused on 4 elements:

1.    Greater focus on context-based learning
2.    Closer blend in-class learning with work
3.    Promote practice intelligence
4.    Develop mind-set capabilities
Context based learning

This involves shifting from teaching research-based knowledge to problem-based learning which has the context of the situation as a primary part of the investigation. This means developing the sense-making capabilities of the students, particularly of the context and the impact the context is having and is likely to have in the future. This is based on helping the students foster evidence-based problem-solving. Critically this includes the ability to generate new perspectives and ways of solving problems and not just applying the solutions and analysis methods provided by the business schools.



Closer blend in-class learning with work

The next element needed is that the learning is grounded in and responsive to the realities of work and the work environment. This means moving from class-based learning and the ubiquitous case-study based approach to more individualised work-based learning, coaching and mentoring.


Promote practice intelligence

Developing practice intelligence needs to be at the heart of the new management education. This means greater use of visiting part-time faculty from the business world and addressing the development of reality seeking, evidence-based practice coupled with imagination, ingenuity, resourcefulness, insight, enterprise and inspiration.


Promoting practice intelligence


Developing mind-set capabilities for the workplace

This means moving beyond the traditional technical and functional capabilities developed in business schools and moving into moral, ethical and values-based education and philosophy where the student critically thinks about their own mind-set and actions and learns to adapt these to become more globally and socially responsible.



This is a serious attempt to question and challenge the current management and business education and training models that not only exist in university business schools but are often replicated in training rooms in organisations around the world – imparting knowledge and models, many of which are out-dated, out of touch and lacking in the ability to generate creative, ethical and socially responsive managers and leaders needed in a world of growing complexity and speed of change.


Minocha, S., Reynolds, M., & Hristov, D. (2017). Developing imaginators not managers–How to flip the business school model. The International Journal of Management Education, 15(3), 481-489.

Secondary references

Bennis, W. (2012). Have business schools found their way? their-way

Mintzberg, H. (2004). Managers not MBAs: A hard look at the soft practice of managing and management development. San Francisco: Berrett-Hoehler Publishers.

Sternberg, R. J., & Wagner, R. K. (1991). Promoting individual and organizational productivity through practical intelligence: The role of tacit knowledge in personal and organizational effectiveness (final report ARI research note 91-52). Alexandria, VA: U S. Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences.


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Disclaimer: This is a research review, expert interpretation and briefing. As such it contains other studies, expert comment and practitioner advice. It is not a copy of the original study – which is referenced. The original study should be consulted and referenced in all cases. This research briefing is for informational and educational purposes only. We do not accept any liability for the use to which this review and briefing is put or for it or the research accuracy, reliability or validity. This briefing as an original work in its own right and is copyright © Oxcognita LLC 2024. Any use made of this briefing is entirely at your own risk.

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David Wilkinson

David Wilkinson is the Editor-in-Chief of the Oxford Review. He is also acknowledged to be one of the world's leading experts in dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty and developing emotional resilience. David teaches and conducts research at a number of universities including the University of Oxford, Medical Sciences Division, Cardiff University, Oxford Brookes University School of Business and many more. He has worked with many organisations as a consultant and executive coach including Schroders, where he coaches and runs their leadership and management programmes, Royal Mail, Aimia, Hyundai, The RAF, The Pentagon, the governments of the UK, US, Saudi, Oman and the Yemen for example. In 2010 he developed the world's first and only model and programme for developing emotional resilience across entire populations and organisations which has since become known as the Fear to Flow model which is the subject of his next book. In 2012 he drove a 1973 VW across six countries in Southern Africa whilst collecting money for charity and conducting on the ground charity work including developing emotional literature in children and orphans in Africa and a number of other activities. He is the author of The Ambiguity Advanatage: What great leaders are great at, published by Palgrave Macmillian. See more: About: About David Wikipedia: David's Wikipedia Page

  • Does the problem lie in the case method per se? Or does it lie in the “reduction” of the case method to a familiar formula, one which the student finds that “parsing” the case materials is easier than engaging the problems at the heart of the case?

    • Hi Bruce,
      Other studies indicate that there are a couple of issues:

      The issue with the reduction of the solution to a formula is partially the issue however…

      There is a significant problem of transfer of the learning to the workplace is often quite low. The learning often becomes ‘situated’. Secondly students often cognitively and emotionally separate out class learning form work based experiential learning. In essence the emotional and cognitive impact (and therefore the learning) of class based case studies is different from experience based learning in the workplace. This it appears accounts for a significant amount of the problem.
      Case based remote (away from the workplace) learning tends to work best where the case mirrors the current issues faced by students in the workplace and the case is used to experiment with ways to solve live issues and is then followed by almost immediate return to the workplace. The problem with many case studies is that they are often ‘part of’ a longer course away from the workplace.


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