Herbert Simon and Some Unresolved Tensions in Professional Schools

The sixteenth in a series of excerpts from Minds, Models and Milieux: Commemorating the Centennial of the Birth of Herbert Simon.

Mie Augier and Bhavna Hariharan

Organizing a professional school. Is very much like mixing oil with water: it is easy to describe the intended product, less easy to produce it. And the task is not finished when the goal has been achieved. Left to themselves, the oil and water will separate again. So also will the disciplines and the professions. Organizing, in these situations, is not a once-and-for-all activity. It is a continuing administrative responsibility, vital for the sustained success of the enterprise (Simon, 1967, p. 16).

Herbert Simon in recognized for his contributions to areas and fields such as organization theory, economics, cognitive science, artificial intelligence, and psychology, as well as others.[1] His paper on the business school as a problem of organizational design (1967) is, although perhaps less well known, a paper that reflects both his mind as an organization theorist and scholar, but also his awareness of the importance of some of the fundamental issues in the education of professions and in professional schools (such as business schools). As a person, he was well known for his strong mind and his insistence on going against the centripetal forces of scholarly disciplines, even if it might have been easier for him to stay within one (or two) disciplines. As he said in conversation, “if you see any discipline dominating you, you join the opposition and fight it for a while”.

The reformation of business schools and management education that Simon and colleagues became a symbol of had similarties with the changing of medical schools, which had happened a few decades earlier. Simon’s and Flexner’s visions for professional education have some similarities although there is little indication that Simon and Flexner overlapped in person. There are lessons from their work that alone – and together – may provide fruitful avenues for future research.

In this chapter, we take as our starting point Simon’s organizational analysis of the professional school, and discuss it in the light of some of the changes that happened in other professional schools (medical schools and engineering schools), as they went through institutional and intellectual transformations.

Simon directed his energy towards creating and reforming much of the intellectual content of one type of professional school, (the business schools), by creating with colleagues, among other things, the new field of organization studies. Flexner, on the other hand directed his efforts towards the institutional and societal reform of another type of professional education – namely medical schools.[ii] Together, Simon’s and Flexner’s contribution are powerful not only for understanding some of the tensions facing professional schools as institutions, but also hold possible implications for how we think of the education of professions in the future. Discussing some of these aspects is the aim of this paper. In particular, section 2 will discuss the Simon/Flexner visions for professional schools, taking into account the tensions that exist and the concept of professionalism embedded in Simon’s and Flexner’s visions. Then we will discuss how some of the Simon/Flexner insights are embedded in the history of another professional school, the engineering school. We end with some implications and the importance of curiosity in research as emphasized by Simon.

[1] Simon preferred to see his legacy and intellectual footprints as integrating, not jumping through, the fields and different disciplines.

[ii] Simon did also work on the larger institutional issues, for instance, being involved in the initiatives leading to places such as the Center for Advanced Studies in Behavioral Social Science (CASBSS), in particular through his involvement with the Ford Foundation. At the even larger institutional and science policy level, he was central in the national academy of science; both in creating room for the social and behavioral sciences there, and on committee work throughout the years.

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