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Re-mastering business education

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The London School of Business. Wharton. Harvard. Stanford. INSEAD. These are the Financial Time’s choices for the top-five global MBA schools for 2010. While the popularity of MBA seems to be going strong — 9,093 applications were made to Harvard for 2011, up from 8,661 in 2010 and 8,540 in 2005 — voices criticising the programme are getting stronger.

Members of the business school community are facing increasing pressure from employers who view the programme as arcane; graduating students with a heightened sense of entitlement and an inability to perform up to the standard in the real world.

Books such as What They Don’t Teach You At Harvard Business School by Mark McCormack have popularly addressed the disconnect between business school curricula and the skills and techniques needed to be a professional manager in the real world. Using his own story as a blueprint, McCormack highlights the fact that a fancy MBA and success in the business world may not be as directly correlated as business schools want you to believe.

It is this disconnect and the manner in which to redress it that are discussed in Rethinking the MBA – Business Education at a Crossroads, a Harvard Business Press release authored by Harvard Business School Professors and David Garvin, and research associate Patrick Cullen.

Exhaustively researched through interviews with deans, faculty, students, executives and an analysis of the curricula of eleven of the top MBA programmes, the book provides an authentic insider’s view of the existing situation.

The book also provides six case studies from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, INSEAD, the Center for Creative Leadership, Harvard, Yale School of Management and Stanford Graduate School to demonstrate how each one has responded to the challenges facing the industry.

A challenge facing B-schools today is that they have traditionally “sold” MBAs as a guaranteed means to a lucrative career in financial services or consulting, where pay-packages and bonuses have historically been the heftiest. Yet this key selling-point has been questioned after the financial crisis with firms laying off large numbers of employees and cutting down on pay. MBAs from brand name universities no longer offer the kind of security they did before the crisis.

Combined with this, the book identifies three other trends testing business education.

First, the shift away from the traditional two-year, full-time MBA programme towards an increasingly varied set of programmes, such as part-time MBAs, executive MBAs and one-year MBAs. In 2008, only 16.3 per cent of enrollments at the top-20 US MBA schools were full-time MBAs, while 28.3 per cent were part-time MBAs and 55.4 per cent were executive MBAs.

Secondly, the swelling tide of employers questioning the value-add of the degree with many viewing it as “a waste of time”.

Thirdly, the increasing trend of employers and students sidestepping the degree, as fresh graduates are absorbed directly into firms and internally promoted, who then choose not to risk leaving for two years to pursue an MBA programme. These trends point to the need to rethink the MBA programme as it stands today, so that it remains relevant to the business world.

To do so, B-schools need to rework their basic assumptions when it comes to the MBA. To remain relevant, the book points to the need for B-schools to do two things: rework the theoretical and factual framework of the programme while at the same time, rebalancing the curriculum to reflect the development of skills that relate to the actual practice of management. The authors make a distinction between “knowing, doing and being” and comment that in many B-schools, students are equipped with the ability to analyse and solve a problem theoretically (knowing) but are less able to execute this in a real-life scenario (doing and being).

The book also identifies eight unmet needs that provide opportunities for MBA programmes to reinvent themselves. These include gaining a global perspective, developing leadership skills, acting creatively and innovatively, thinking critically and communicating clearly. The book points to Harvard’s decision to replace its General Management course with “The Entrepreneurial Manager” course — designed to challenge students to actually build a business from scratch.

Similarly, Stanford’s Graduate School of Business revolutionised its curriculum in the fall of 2007 by allowing for an unprecedented amount of customisation of its MBA programme. After a common course on perspectives, students were allowed to tailor their degree to their specific needs and interests; allowing them to build themselves up as per their future business requirements.

The case study on INSEAD reveals the approach of the school to building leaders with a global mindset. This is done by having dual campuses — in Singapore and France. Its curriculum is built on global material and the school boasts of a highly diverse student body and faculty. Furthermore, the length of the MBA course is only 10 months, compared with the traditional two-year programme.

The role of business education should be to graduate leaders who are both academically brilliant as well as emotionally and socially conscious of the society they function in. Rethinking the MBA – Business Education at a Crossroads is a book that deals with an important topic at an apt time.

Srikant Datar, and Patrick Cullen
Harvard Business Press
Pages 378; $39.95

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