A report looking at the relevance of MBA programmes suggests that criticisms that the curricula falls short of what today’s global managers need, may be justified.

The report - How relevant is the MBA? Assessing the alignment of MBA curricula and managerial competencies - finds that although essential managerial skills are being taught, there are nevertheless “significant gaps”, specifically in the area of so-called soft skills.

Ironically, say the authors Robert Rubin and Erich Dierdorff of DePaul University, Chicago, it may well be the students’ negative perception of soft skills that is behind these gaps.

While “corporate recruiters routinely assert that MBA programmes need to do more to inculcate soft skills such as leadership, communication and interpersonal skills,” says the report, “research shows that students increasingly harbour negative attitudes towards such soft skills.

“Thus students purport that MBA programmes could be more relevant by disposing of anything that is not perceived as useful in gaining employment.”

Where MBA programmes emphasise the softer competencies says the report, administrators “are significantly more likely to report increased pressure from students to change the curriculum.”

The authors had access to a US Department of Labor database of surveys of more than 8,600 managers, across a broad spectrum of occupations. Using the data the authors identified six behavioural competencies that “best described the essential requirements for all managers”; managing human capital, managing logistics and technology, managing decision-making processes, managing administration and control, managing strategy and innovation and managing the task environment.

The authors then examined how these competencies compared with the course requirements of 373 MBA programmes and the perceptions of 118 business school admininstrators.

They discovered wide differences between what were considered by managers to be the most important skills and the amount of coursework in these areas required by programmes. For example, whilst managers ranked managing human capital as second in importance, in terms of course coverage it was ranked fourth. Whilst managing administration and control, ranked top in terms of course coverage at schools, but was ranked fifth in importance by managers.

The report warns that those MBA programmes which rely on the preferences of students to make their programmes attractive “may actually face the unintended consequences of becoming less relevant to real managerial work.

“Conversely, institutions driving their curriculum design choices based on actual managerial requirements may increase their true relevancy, all the while appearing less relevant to their primary consumers, students.”

The report will be presented at next week’s annual Academy of Management meeting in Philadelphia.


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