Rethinking the MBA

If you follow MBA news, you might know about a recent book called Rethinking the MBA.  It’s an offshoot of an internal strategy project at Harvard Business School, and it describes the current state of the MBA, its strengths and shortcomings, and ways that business schools are trying to make the degree more useful and relevant.  I took a quick look and wanted to share my thoughts.

I was hoping for an insightful analysis, but I was disappointed overall.  The authors spend a great deal of effort on describing the data they gathered (when you have a hammer…), and not enough on coming to a strong conclusion.  The book suffers from some of the same challenges as business school in general, with too much analysis and not enough innovation in terms of solutions.  Perhaps part of my problem with the book is due to the over-reaching title.  A better title might have been “refining the MBA.”

In a nutshell, the book focuses on eight areas where b-schools need to provide students with better preparation.

  • Global perspective
  • Leadership skills
  • Integration skills (i.e., integrating different types of thinking to solve complex, multi-functional problems)
  • Organizational execution (i.e., how to get things done in a real company)
  • Creativity and innovation
  • Communicating clearly
  • The roles, responsibilities, and purpose of business (i.e., business ethics and social responsibility)
  • Limits of models and markets (i.e., an appreciation for risk and the imperfection of business school models)

B-school incrementalism

These points don’t really constitute rethinking the MBA.  They’re valid incremental steps towards addressing criticisms, but on the whole they betray a lack of focus.  Good strategy requires defining what you won’t do, not just what you will do.  Any organization that tries to be all things to all people ends up being mediocre in most respects.  Burdening a two-year MBA stint with even more requirements and expectations runs the risk of making it more of a broad survey that does not provide people with enough depth in their areas of focus.

This issue stems partly from the organizational structure of the typical business school.  The consensus-based academic model results in lots of stakeholders for every activity the school performs – different groups of faculty, students, and alumni will all support the aspect they like the best.  It can be very difficult to solve one problem extremely well because everyone has a different set of priorities, and there’s often no good tie-breaker unless the dean is quite politically skilled.  As a result, most established business schools have a hard time being really innovative.  The best schools rely on continuing to improve what they already do, and lower-ranked schools often play follow the leader.

Doing versus knowing

The book does cover what I consider the biggest challenge for business schools, preparing students for the actual practice of business management rather than just understanding it conceptually.  Interestingly, this problem comes from business schools’ attempts to address an earlier wave of criticism.  Reports from the Ford Foundation and Carnegie Corporation in the 50’s indicted schools for not being academically rigorous enough and curricula for being too anecdotal.  The resulting move to a more research-based approach has led to the material becoming more theoretical and perhaps less relevant to the practice of management, and faculty are most often recruited based on research than on management experience.

Disruptive approaches

Because of the organizational challenges of existing schools, I’d expect more innovation in business education to come from up-starts or for-profit schools.

What would disruptive approaches look like?  I don’t necessarily know, but here are a couple of ideas:

  • Creating a true on-the-job MBA with company-specific content, job-specific coaching, and potentially internal job rotations tailored to candidates who want to excel within a company, not necessarily change jobs
  • Offering specialist MBA programs that prepare you to be a specialist, not just to use their work (this is one area where many schools are actually innovating, providing more targeted degrees)
  • Going beyond the 1-2 year time frame with coaching and mentoring to address management challenges that evolve as your career progresses

Of course, brand recognition, alumni networks, and access to capital present big barriers to entry, so perhaps we’ll have to wait until established schools address some of these challenges after all.


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