Contested curricula: MBAs past, present and future

I wrote a version of this post as the introduction to a research proposal that I’m putting together. Among other things I’m hoping that my research will show how, through curriculum redesign supported by innovative use of pedagogy and digital technologies, business-school education can be realigned with the changing needs of students and society. Anyway, I’m sharing it here as a way to record my thoughts and in case it’s useful to others.

We have built a weird, almost unimaginable design for MBA-level education. We then lay it upon well-proportioned young men and women, distorting them (when we are unlucky enough to succeed) into critters with lopsided brains, icy hearts, and shrunken souls. (Leavitt 1989, p. 39)

Since their inception, business schools’ curricula and the graduates they produce have been the subjects of heated debate. As the first business schools spread across the USA in the early 20th century, critics argued that subject coverage and teaching methods were at a vocational level and not grounded in research, leading to claims that they lacked academic credibility. In response, many schools began emphasising more quantitative, analytical approaches to education, and making greater use of statistical modelling and ‘rational planning’ approaches to strategy, thereby aligning themselves with more established faculties such as mathematics, economics and engineering.

These measures established business schools’ credibility and increased the demand for their provision for almost a century; however, by the early 21st century MBA curricula were being critiqued again for de-privileging many of the skills that contemporary managers needed in practice. These criticisms reached something of a crescendo when business-school graduates (and by extension the schools themselves) were seen by many to be complicit in the global financial crisis of 2008.

The literature on the perceived shortcomings of the MBA is now considerable in both breadth and depth, but consensus seems to be emerging around some of the capabilities that managers need but MBAs typically fail to deliver. These include leadership, self-awareness, dealing with change and ever-increasing amounts of information, interpersonal and communication skills, innovation and creativity, and the ability to solve complex problems by integrating the disciplines. Moreover, there is some evidence that these missing capabilities are the very skills that are most likely to determine graduates’ future career success.

Perhaps even more seriously, there are accusations that business schools are failing to develop graduates who possess an understanding of the moral and ethical dimensions of business: critics say that many MBA graduates are detached, driven by self-interest, and lacking in both empathy and leadership skills. In particular, ethics, sustainability and social responsibility are seen as being either absent from MBA curricula or not meaningfully inscribed into practice. This situation has led to demands that business schools re-examine their curricula and the assumptions that underpin them, and even ask themselves why they exist at all.

Meanwhile, many business schools are seen as being too slow to embrace the complexities of digital technologies, both in terms of their implications for practice and in terms of how programmes are designed and delivered:

[Business] schools remain desperately slow to embrace the digital world. Strong brands have enabled them to escape the implications of this, but they are likely to be found out as online courses become ever-more accepted and sophisticated. (Crainer 2015, p. 48).

Almost three decades on, Leavitt’s plaintive cry about lopsided brains, icy hearts and shrunken souls still seems to echo – unheard – through business schools. However, for schools that are perhaps smaller and more agile, there seems to be an opportunity to reposition themselves ahead of more established institutions that have been slower to embrace change.

Here are some of the questions that business schools might wish to consider as they think about their curricula, and particularly how they approach their online programmes:

  • What processes are required so that a dialogue can be established between schools’ curricula and the needs of students and businesses over the long term?
  • What academic, technical and administrative infrastructure is required in order to support online education that aligns with these needs while operating on a global scale?
  • How can business schools leverage the potential of global communities of online learners to meet educational goals, develop highly skilled graduates and inform future curriculum development?
  • How do business schools assess students in ways that are appropriate to complex and ever-changing learning outcomes, while operating at scale and protecting assessment validity?
  • To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the death of the MBA appear to be exaggerated. But do business schools need to shift at least some of their emphasis (and their resources) from the MBA to other qualifications, such as hyper-specialist MScs or micro-credentialing for business?

Bibliography

I’ve removed most of the citations to avoid interrupting the flow too much here, but some of the main works that informed this post are:

Crainer S. (2015) ‘MBAs: facing the future’, Business Life, October 2015, pp. 44–48.

Glen R., Suciu C. and Baughn C. (2014) The need for design thinking in business schools. Academy of Management Learning and Education, 13 (4), 653–667.

Laud R.L. and Johnson M.S. (2013) Progress and regress in the MBA curriculum: the career and practice skills gap. Organization Management Journal, 10 (1), 24–35.

Leavitt H.J. (1989) Educating our MBAs: on teaching what we haven’t taught. California Management Review, 31 (3), 38–50.

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