Soapbox

April 21, 2013 11:51 pm

What skills do MBA students really need?

There are signs of stagnation in business schools in the west. Perhaps now is the time for the management education industry to re-evaluate its broader goals

Despite their fine buildings and media visibility, business schools remain curiously insubstantial. Why do they exist and what do they do for us? Unlike medical or engineering schools, they lack an established body of practical knowledge, or a clear place in an executive’s career or in the university’s intellectual architecture.

Until recently simply asking this was heresy, especially as business schools have multiplied dramatically over the past 30 years.

More

Soapbox

Today there are signs of stagnation, especially in the US and Europe. The top schools fill their classrooms, but many two-year, full-time MBA programmes are struggling. Some schools have introduced part-time, weekend and online programmes. Others have shifted from “general management” to specialisms – finance, innovation management or entrepreneurship – or hired new deans to promote psychology, sociology or organisational behaviour. Others have responded with alliances to offer a multi-campus global experience.

Despite these changes, the drumbeat of criticism about unbalanced curriculums and faculty disincentives persists. The doubts articulated by academics such as Sumantra Ghoshal or Warren Bennis or Henry Mintzberg or Jeffrey Pfeffer have gained wide currency. Many suspect business schools had some part in the 2008 financial collapse and surmise that students are being trained to succeed in business only to fail society. There has been substantial degree inflation, with the MBA replacing bachelor degrees as the entry ticket to business success.

Beale cartoon

Business schools now face the same fork in the road as the protagonists in the cases taught by teaching staff: to choose incremental improvements to what they are doing or to transition to something different. There is often merit in doing familiar things better but there are dilemmas too. The schools with the best reputation attract the best students and recruiters. They attract the teachers most visible as “public intellectuals” and the largest endowments to support student aid. These schools have the least incentive to change course – at least for now.

Yet most recognise problems around curriculum content, student incentives, teaching faculty research and engagement and the recruiters’ distorting impact on their process. Some have workarounds, hiring lecturers with business experience or pushing for more field-based and non-classroom experiences. Some are considering massive open online courses and online delivery. However, these workarounds are seldom realistic for local and regional schools that have threatened budgets but are nonetheless under pressure to break into the “top 100” from external constituencies with little understanding of the distorting effects of the rankings. Vicious circles spin against these schools as they work to provide local students with the skills valued by local organisations. Their business models are becoming unsustainable.

Perhaps the management education industry should re-evaluate its broader goals. What skills do students really need to help their employers, themselves and their nations to succeed?

In 1978 Derek Bok, then president of Harvard, assessed Harvard Business School’s offerings. His comments still illuminate the situation. Many schools responded to his observation of the absence of business ethics from the curriculum, now mandated in the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business’s accreditation process. Trickier were his suggestions that the curriculum ill-prepared students for work in a socio-economy increasingly pummelled by politics, public policy and regulation. He noted that many executives spent half their time on government, regulatory and community affairs.

Such changes are not just in curriculum content, which can be solved by throwing in business ethics and public affairs. There are deeper issues. Today’s schooling in quantitative techniques may be excessive, but given the rise of “big-data”, high-speed trading, complex global logistics and ever more powerful search algorithms, they remain essential.

The pedagogical challenge is to complement the present curriculum’s rigour. Managers need training in judgment because the facts necessary for purely rigorous decision-making are seldom available. But managerial judgment – resolving business uncertainties and embracing ethical and social responsibility for actions that affect others – plays almost no part in the narrative that underpins schools’ account of managing. Analysis has been prioritised at the expense of judgment.

Teaching judgment is no trifling switch of content. HBS has long sustained the necessary supporting historical research and casework. So doing something different may mean no more than recovering aspects of management training that were familiar half a century ago but forgotten in the rush to model everything. Business responds to market forces but also to values and principles, to social expectations and laws, to regulations and professional codes of conduct. These considerations have become harder to keep in the curriculum as rigorous research has become the measure of faculty careers.

Recovering balance also means reassessing the internal discourse of managerial practice. Quantitative analysis and hard figures may rule – but when dealing with the political risk of an overseas investment, or the probability of an R&D breakthrough, or the impacts of a new plant, the conversation embraces opinion and judgment as well.

Executives spend much of their time persuading and being persuaded by others with words rather than figures, expressing sentiments and visions rather than quantitative models. Talk matters. So maybe business schools owe their students training in the rhetorical skills that complement, humanise, and socialise the analytical ones being purveyed so successfully. Indeed, perhaps business schools’ deepest problem is that in embracing quantitative methods so comprehensively, they have stumbled into implying that the executive’s judgment is irrelevant and that a well-programmed computer can do the job better.

Rakesh Khurana is the Marvin Bower professor of leadership development at Harvard Business School and the author of ‘From Higher Aims to Hired Hands: The Social Transformation of American Business and the Unfulfilled Promise of Management as a Profession’ (Princeton University Press).

J.C. Spender is a visiting professor at Esade (Universtat Ramon Llull) and the author of ‘Business Strategy: Managing Uncertainty, Opportunity, and Enterprise’ (Oxford University Press, forthcoming)

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.

SHARE THIS QUOTE