Time for boot camp MBAs

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The MBA seems to arouse more debate than most degrees, with critics wondering about its relevance, questioning its value and trying to discern common management errors that executives with the degree are prone to making. This has led to an almost perpetual questioning of the MBA curriculum.

Many innovations have emerged from this process of self-examination but, as I reflect on the nature of the MBA debate, I’m struck by its somewhat limited scope. In particular, there seems to be a fundamental belief that the MBA has to be at least one year in length.

The implications of this are quite extraordinary. First, it more than doubles the true cost of acquiring the degree as any rational student would need to factor the cost of lost wages into the equation. But, much more importantly, it precludes anyone who is unprepared to step out of their job and their career path from pursuing an MBA. This limits the appeal of the MBA to those individuals who are looking for a step-change in their career progression.

The executive MBA, which allows participants to maintain their current job and attend school at night and weekends, was developed in response to this perceived need and has been quite successful. But is the executive format the only way to tap into this potential market?

A typical MBA programme delivers about 600 hours of classroom time. If these hours were delivered in “boot camp” style – let’s say at a pace of 35 hours per week – they could be completed within a four-month period. If we allow for an additional 25 hours of preparatory work outside the classroom, we end up with a 60-hour work week.

This is tough – but we know from other business arenas that it is achievable and can be sustained for a four-month period. It might even be possible to reduce the number of classroom hours without reducing – and potentially even enhancing – the quality of the graduate pool.

Is there a downside to this approach? Most certainly, students would experience the programme differently. The social environment at the boot camp MBA, for example, would be markedly different from the typical two-year MBA experience although, in my view, a similar sense of camaraderie could develop. Some might question the ability of students to learn in such an intensive programme but current executive education programmes show that 60-hour weeks do not necessarily constrain and, in some ways, enhance the learning experience. The faculty would also need to adjust its schedules – a subject best left to another article.

But balanced against this would be the enormous benefit of completing the degree in four months. Beyond the financial advantage, I believe this approach would make it feasible for a much larger pool of individuals to pursue the degree. And I believe it would also have the effect of making the MBA degree more relevant to the specific circumstances of the students pursuing it.

Imagine, for example, a large company that announces a merger, to be consummated five months later. With the option of a boot camp MBA, it would be feasible to send a cadre of employees to receive their MBA, then immediately return to work and apply what they had learnt to help with post-merger integration and strategy. Or imagine a company in the midst of developing a new strategy – it would be feasible to send employees to receive their MBA and return to help with the design and implementation, having acquired a greater skillset in these areas.

The concept of an educational process being run as a boot camp runs counter to many of the well-established norms of academia. As a result, I think there is little chance that the traditional MBA formats will disappear. Indeed, they may continue to thrive. But I also believe that these norms will make it difficult for institutions of higher education to lead in the development of radical new formats for the MBA degree. It may be up to businesses to take the lead.

Jonathan Spector is chief executive of The Conference Board. The views expressed in this article are those of the author

www.conference-board.org

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