DBA, when business administration meets science

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From corporate to academia, from operations to research. And back. It’s not overly simplistic to say that the spirit of a DBA, Doctorate in Business Administration lies within this path. It’s a circular movement that brings managerial culture to a scientific level, so as to contribute to the general progress of corporate governance practices, and they in turn become the subject of study and of theoretical considerations. It is an highly evolved training offer, meant for those who want to become “thought leaders”, as Fabrizio Castellucci, Director of SDA Bocconi’s DBA, defines it. We asked him to tell us about this key figure, about this important training experience, and the cultural and professional perspectives it can open.

First of all let’s try and understand what a DBA is, and how it differs from the other two general executive training programs, the MBA and the PhD.

In simple terms, if we place the other two experiences at polar opposites, the DBA lies between them. It’s not an alternative, but rather the harmonization of the two points of view. An MBA is typically designed for junior figures, who have only had a few years of managerial experience, and it often acts as a springboard for their career. Even though it has a rigorous scientific basis, it’s mostly operational: they examine best-case scenarios, practical solutions, and so on. On the other hand, the PhD in Business Administration is strictly theoretical and is designed for an academic career. The DBA brings together aspects from both paths: it’s designed for those who have considerable business experience, senior executives or high-profile consultants who are ready to become thought leaders, someone who can support their actions with solid science and methodology.

Referring back to the two training “poles”, what are the advantages of a DBA within a business school?

I believe that in the field of business administration there are strong synergies between the academic world and the world of practitioners. Some of them haven’t been explored yet, due to an unjustified tendency to consider them as non-communicating worlds. A business school should have the task of filling the gaps by mixing the two components. This is even more so if we’re talking about a business school with a strong tie to a university, such as SDA Bocconi. Our faculty has considerable academic expertise and, working alongside client companies and partners, they also have just as much business experience. The DBA classroom thus becomes the ideal lab to produce this synergy, where participants from the corporate world are “exposed”, maybe for the first time, to an academic mindset and its methodologies.

In the current economic and corporate landscape, is there a growing need for such a training program?

I really think so. Most of all, I think that when we reach a certain level of evolution and complexity in a business, we need systematic thinking and a scientific approach. In the world of managerial practice, I often notice that they implement inductive processes that extract general rules by examining a single case study: typically, you look at a successful company and you try to imitate it. But this is not a scientific approach. The added value of a DBA, in addition to exploring the single disciplines in depth, is exactly the acquisition of a different way of thinking and of tackling problems, by establishing the right causal links between two phenomena, between a result that we have to reach and the actions we have to take to reach such result. Most of all, in certain economic circumstances it’s not enough to “replicate” behavior and strategies, be they our own or those of others, based only on the fact that they worked in the past. The conditions change every time and we need a method to understand how they do so. And a DBA gives you that.

Talking about its specific context, what’s the added value of the DBA at SDA Bocconi?

Certainly the fact that it takes place in a School of Management with an international profile, a school that works closely with the business community, and at the same time it has  Bocconi at its back, a research university of international standing in business, economics, and law. This means a faculty of high academic level, of pure researchers, but who never neglect the practical repercussions of their work. Another advantage of SDA Bocconi’s DBA is the streamlined structure of the program, which keeps in mind the agendas of senior executives, which are always extremely “crowded”. This is why we’ve tried to concentrate the residential modules—only four of them in the first two years—complementing them with three online modules dedicated to the Fundamentals (Economics, Finance and Public Policy). The whole learning experience also comes with the support of a tutor, a faculty member who follows the participants and their research projects over the three-year period, on a one-to-one basis. The last year is dedicated solely to completing such project. All in all, it’s a demanding challenge, but it can mean moving from simply learning to producing managerial culture of excellence. More precisely, moving to a thought leadership.

SDA Bocconi School of Management

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