Rethinking the MBA
A Way Forward for Business School Education
If you are curious about the future of business education, look no further than the new book Rethinking the MBA: Business Education at a Crossroads (Harvard Business Press), by HBS professors Srikant Datar and David Garvin and research associate Patrick Cullen. The title isn’t just a rhetorical flourish. Deans and executives alike take issue with what and how students are taught, revealing a number of shortcomings that the authors argue point the way to a reform agenda. How business schools respond will determine their relevance in the future. Datar and Garvin recently talked about the way forward for business education.
In the opening pages of your book, you write that the need for change is “urgent.” Why urgent?
Garvin: First, we heard from executives a growing perception that questions the value-added by the MBA degree. Those questions, and the desire for greater attention to organizational realities, global perspectives, and leadership skills, have been getting more vigorous and louder. Second, this is very much a time for reflection because of the global economic crisis. If there ever were a time for institutions to reconsider their goals and direction, it is now. There is, for example, a growing social perception that the MBA degree needs to do more around the roles and responsibilities of business and business leaders. We need to teach students more about the limits of markets and models. We need to do more around risk and restraint and the pros and cons of regulation. So this is a particular moment when both the demand and the supply sides are raising fundamental questions and are more open to change than we’ve seen historically.
Datar: Just to add to that, we also write about the lack of student engagement in MBA programs. They are less committed to what happens in the classroom and more focused on outside activities and recruiting.
How do you square the fact that U.S. schools are turning out 150,000 MBAs a year while criticism of these programs has reached new heights?
Datar: There is no question that the need for people with leadership and managerial skills is greater than ever. So on the one hand, demand is terrific. But on the other, we’re seeing all the issues that David talked about plus the lack of student engagement. In many cases students are voting with their feet. When you look at the data, you see a sharp change in program mix. Particularly at mid-ranked schools, there’s been an increase in enrollment in part-time and executive MBA programs but a dramatic decline in full-time, two-year MBA enrollments. That certainly suggests to us that there’s an urgent need to rethink the MBA.
Garvin: Simply because MBAs are being churned out in large numbers doesn’t mean that we have the ideal combination of course offerings or that we prepare students as well as possible for the challenges they will face.
Critics maintain that business schools overemphasize rigor and underemphasize relevance. Does your research bear that out?
Garvin: We frame it a bit differently, but in general we agree. We use a trilogy that we borrowed from West Point to describe the essential components of business school education: knowing or knowledge, doing or skills, and being or a sense of purpose and identity.
Ever since the seminal Carnegie and Ford reports in 1959, MBA curricula have emphasized knowledge and analytics, grounded in economics, statistics, applied mathematics, and social psychology. We believe a rebalancing is in order. Not that knowing is unimportant. It’s essential. But we need to elevate the importance of practical skills and leadership values. Knowledge in itself isn’t enough. It needs to be applicable. And often that comes from “doing” skills and a sense of what one is trying to accomplish.
You recommend that all business schools should do a better job of teaching integrative thinking and problem-solving skills, and focus more on accountability efforts and social responsibility. Why are these two areas so critical?
Garvin: Business schools have historically focused on the “what.” Critical, creative, and integrative thinking skills are very much about the “how,” and accountability and purpose is about the “why.” We’re asking for an expansion from simply the “what” question to the inclusion of the “how” and “why” questions.
How would you actually bring these concepts into the classroom?
Datar: In the book, we don’t just say, “Teach critical thinking” or “Teach integrative thinking.” We try to document the curricula and pedagogies of schools that have done it. Every need that we identify in the book, such as developing a more global perspective or gaining a deeper understanding of organizational realities, comes with a corresponding example of actual implementation. But we’re pluralistic, not rigidly prescriptive. We don’t say that every school must pursue every goal. Using the wide range of examples that we provide, they will all have to figure out their own strategies to fit their particular needs.
Are the student creators and signers of the new MBA Oath that pledges ethical business behavior a step ahead of the schools that they attended?
Datar: The oath is valuable, but business schools need to do more. They need to help students be more reflective and think about multiple stakeholders, about leaders’ roles and responsibilities in society, about making the right kinds of judgments, and about their own approaches to thinking through problems in ways that actually adhere to the oath. If all of that happens in the context of classes, exercises, and projects, the oath will be that much more powerful.
What are the major barriers to implementing the changes that you’ve identified in the book: institutional or economic?
Garvin: The barriers come in three categories. The first is what we call questions about the unknown, which we hope our book largely overcomes. With many of the changes that we propose, institutions’ first reaction is to say, “Yes, but how do you go about doing that?” Our detailed examples were developed with just this question in mind.
The second barrier is a skills gap. If you’re going to teach leadership development, you need faculty with coaching skills. If you’re going to teach experiential learning, you need faculty who can oversee projects and give guidance on project management. If you’re going to teach critical thinking, you need faculty who are practiced in critical, creative, or integrative thinking. Those are different from the highly analytical capabilities of the typical business school faculty member today. So we need either to broaden the skill base of current faculty or to bring in complementary skills from adjuncts, alumni, and practicing managers.
The third barrier is the question of cost, which comes in because many of the things we talk about — such as leadership development and experiential learning — are best taught in small groups. With small groups, you lose the economies of scale that you get from a large classroom setting. So some of these activities bring additional expense.
Aren’t you advocating a reimagining of what business school education is all about?
Garvin: The concept that people have about what it means to be a modern business school is perhaps the biggest barrier to change. We are suggesting a change in the current model toward a new perspective: one with more leadership development, more personal development, and more skills development. Once you get that picture clearer, then you have a different sense of what good research looks like, what well-rounded faculties look like, and where to put your resources.
What the book tries to do is shift the picture of MBA training from one that is purely analytical — a school that looks just like an academic department elsewhere in a university — to a true professional school where we’re developing not just knowledge but also skills, purpose, and identity. To the extent that our book moves business schools in that direction, which we think is essential, it will have accomplished its purpose.
— Roger Thompson