Soapbox

April 2, 2012 12:05 am

Internships leave a little too much to chance

Tomorrow’s business leaders need the learning that comes from collaborative partnerships

Here is a question I am frequently asked: why do we have no internships in our MBA programme? People expect me to say: “Because it’s a one-year programme and there’s no time.” Or perhaps: “Because our students are more experienced so they don’t need them.” But the real answer is that the vast majority of internships do not prepare MBAs for the complexity of global leadership.

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Sure, if you want to become an expert in a particular field, or move into a well-established and predictable career path, a good internship may help you understand what that job is, get to know a particular organisation, or decide whether the career path is right for you. But what if your destination is a future no one can see right now? What’s the internship for that?

“Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads!” This is a line from the film Back to the Future, where “Doc” Brown flies the DeLorean out of the present. In business education we need to make the same leap in our assumptions about traditional learning methods. Where we’re going, we don’t need internships. We need partnerships.

Of course, learning to lead and navigate in today’s business environment requires real-world experience. The challenge is, it takes the right combination of experiences (note the plural – it cannot be a single, long linear experience) combined with guidance and instruction exactly when it’s needed. Internships are unlikely to provide that mix. They leave far too much of the combination, guidance and instruction to chance.

To embed experience in MBA curriculums, programmes must operate more like professional business networks with participants and executives working together.

Many good MBA programmes have consulting projects, with MBAs helping companies solve their problems. These projects should be taken one step further by having the MBAs and executives collaborate in large strategic engagements, implementing new tools and perspectives on their business and leadership. This will create a deep partnership between schools and businesses, where all parties have an interest at stake, specific goals to reach and an open mind to exploring new territories together.

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Soapbox

There are many other ways MBA programmes can move beyond internships. In some, MBA students offer classes to help local start-ups to develop and implement a better business plan. Some work with non-governmental organisations to analyse how they manage networks and offer advice. Many classes welcome executive guest speakers, which is a good way of sharing experience. But how often do these speakers say: “Here’s what we are dealing with right now and we don’t know what to do. What do you suggest?”

In engaging guest speakers and the class, there is an opportunity to learn through real-world experience and to build bridges to key business leaders. Contrary to popular belief, an internship will not guarantee a long-term link to a company or its executives any more than a mind-nourishing experience with a speaker might.

In fact, by eliminating much of the procedure and logistical elements that can bog down an internship, I think that inviting more executives to brainstorm on projects with MBAs is more effective in developing lasting relationships (and more of them).

While internships may seem attractive for a résumé, most are linear and simple transactions. They provide learning about a particular job and organisation and the company gets something useful back in terms of work done.

Tomorrow’s business leaders need the kind of learning that comes from collaborative partnerships, where stakeholders in the business world, educators, and learners can come together – learning partnerships that transform students into leaders.

When we graduate MBAs, we must send them back to a future they can shape, not just one that happens to them.

Prof Martha Maznevski is MBA director at IMD

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