For decades, MBA has spelt Massively Big Achievement for degree-holders: It’s assured the best jobs at the best scales and has never been out of fashion. But as Harvard Business School (HBS) professors Srikant Datar and David Garvin discover, a changing world economy and increasingly outdated curriculum can dramatically alter the outlook for B-school applicants. Add to that a global financial meltdown that challenges the very foundations of the way business is done, let alone taught, and the guarantee of success begins to look shaky, they fear.
In Rethinking the MBA, the authors note that a “cookie-cutter mentality” has created “virtually identical” MBA programmes in schools across the US, Europe and India. This, they write, has led to increased “commoditization” and “mass production of graduates”, all fed on the same managerial concepts, without any training in practice and innovation. Edited excerpts from an interview with Datar, one of the authors:
What prompted this book?
After the tremendous response to a workshop on “The Future of MBA Education”, on the 100th anniversary of HBS, convened by Prof Garvin and I, we decided to expand our efforts. After collecting comprehensive data on business schools we saw a hollowing out of the MBA marketplace in full-time programmes, declining student numbers in the order of 25%, 30%, even 50% at highly ranked schools outside the top 15 or so. Part-time MBA, executive MBA, and other master’s courses were seen as attractive substitutes, that the students were not as engaged with the academic curriculum. The common question was about the value added by an MBA degree.
Rethinking the MBA— Business Education at a Crossroads: By Srikant M. Datar, David A. Garvin and Patrick G. Cullen; Harvard Business Publishing, Boston; 378 pages, Rs895.
So is the traditional MBA programme inadequate for existing workplace needs?
At its most basic level, prospective students believe that a full-time MBA does not justify the costs. Executive MBA programmes are much more affordable because students continue in their jobs and because employers subsidize the cost of tuition.
Our data also suggests that career-switching opportunities after graduating from full-time MBA programmes are fewer and limited to a few top schools in the US. (The situation in India is different. MBA graduates from the top schools here continue to experience very rewarding job opportunities and careers.)
What exactly has devalued the full-time MBA curriculum? And how can this be remedied?
Ever since the Carnegie and Ford reports (that prescribed curriculum for business schools) in 1959, MBA curricula have emphasized knowledge and analytics, grounded in economics, statistics, applied mathematics and social psychology. We believe a re-balancing is in order. We need to elevate the importance of practical skills and capabilities as well as leadership, values, and the roles and responsibilities of business. Students need to understand the hows and whys of management as well as they understand the whats.
Are any of the MBA programmes that are currently being offered already innovating in this way?
In the book, we describe several innovations in MBA curricula. Each is a response to the unmet needs identified by the executives and deans that we interviewed—a flexible curriculum, a course in leadership development, and numerous opportunities for study abroad at Booth, University of Chicago; a global orientation with MBA campuses in France and Singapore at Institut Européen d’Administration des Affaires (Insead); general management, closeness to practice, and ethics, roles and responsibilities of business at HBS, Massachusetts; and customization, global strategic perspectives, and critical thinking at Stanford University, California.
India and China still seem to be fertile ground for new MBAs and B-schools alike. Is it just a matter of time before the dilemma hits the Asian Tigers too?
Growing developing markets have a high demand for professional managerial talent. This explains the strong increases in full-time MBA enrolments in countries like India, China and parts of Latin America. But the question still remains whether MBA programmes are providing as good training as they can to prepare managers for their careers. I believe they can and must do much better.