Business administration a science? Then more critical reflection is needed

OPINION | Less market and management, more critical reflection and diversity. Student and philosophy researcher Lucas Gronouwe argues for business school reform at universities. Business studies should not focus on market-driven capitalism, but on problems in society. ‘If management and organisational science wants to be a legitimate academic discipline, it needs to reform or reinvent itself,’ he says.

Early on in his Master's in Philosophy of Business Sciences, Gronouwe wondered what exactly this course name meant. He delved into the literature, but there was no clear answer. He decided to survey all the philosophically informed currents of the past decades at the interface of philosophy and management and organisational science. At the opening of The Academic Year 2023-2024, he received the University's Student Award for his Master’s thesis. Gronouwe: ‘I first mapped the reviews and then looked at what they say about where they want to go. After all, it is good philosophical practice to say not only what is wrong, but also how it can be done better.’

Portret Lucas Gronouwe

A major criticism of business studies that you have found is the lack of critical reflection. What does that imply? 

A lack of fundamental philosophical questions you could say. What is the effect of managerial thinking on society? What is organisation? Is organisation always a good thing? Where self-reflection is about using proper scientific methodology, critical reflection is more about philosophical reflection. In addition, one of the main criticisms is the lack of diversity; within business studies, the main focus seems to be on market-driven capitalism. Critical management scientists then say: this affects the scientific status of business studies. Science should always be critical, discuss diverse perspectives, and have some reflection on its foundations; it should remain mindful of the dark sides of its teaching.’

Dark sides? 

‘The dark sides of capitalism, says the Critical Management Studies movement. In other words, the socio-political effects that spill over into society and create certain problems. Just look at the university itself: students are seen as consumers, have a high degree of competition among themselves and staff are judged on quantity rather than quality. The marketing thinking that is instilled in Business Administration students starts to play a role in sectors such as healthcare and education, even though these are segments where very different values apply. This seepage of market thinking is hardly addressed within the study itself.’

What does a lack of critical reflection and diversity mean for how Business Administration students are educated? 

‘That they cannot think critically and take their position on things. Plus they are trained more as professionals than scientific critical professionals. For example, there are lots of alternatives to market and managerial capitalism, but they are not discussed. For instance, in my entire Business Administration studies, I have not heard anything about worker cooperatives or anarchist and feminist organisational theories. If the course wants to be a science and train its students to be responsible managers, it must give its students the tools to reflect. On the effect of their actions themselves and society as a whole.’

For a thorough business school reform, you propose an 'inverted business administration'. What do you mean by that?

‘It would be interesting to start with the problems currently facing society, and then look at what organisational scientists and business scholars can say about them. What forms of organisation are best suited to ensure human autonomy? To encourage solidarity between people? Which forms, then, are most future-proof? There has been an interdisciplinary course called 'Work in the 21st Century' between Nijmegen School of Management and the faculties of Philosophy and Law for a few years now. Students look at themes such as precarisation and flexibilisation in the labour market from three perspectives. I think that's a great example of what inverted business administration could look like in concrete terms.’

Do you regret studying Business Administration at the time? 

‘No, not at all. I thoroughly enjoyed the study. Perhaps to some, my speech may seem to be a frontal attack on business studies. I don't mean it that way. On the contrary, I begin and end my thesis by expressing my commitment to its survival. I would just really like to see business studies move more in the direction of management and organisational science. Fortunately, I see an increasing focus in the study on social issues, such as sustainability, employee welfare, social inequality, and diversity. Regardless of what that means for profit as an organisational goal. So steps are being made, I just think it could be more robust.’

When you started studying in 2018, you wanted to become an organisational consultant. Is that still the case?

‘No, I abandoned that ambition some time ago. I would like to stay within academia and pursue a PhD in philosophy. To what extent my suggestions for reforming business studies will be followed up? The future will tell.’

Text: Annette Zonnenberg