Powerful Quick-Fix for the MBA / by Cristian Mitreanu

Criticism of the conventional MBA program is nothing new. For years, Professor Henry Mintzberg of McGill University has arguably been the champion of this movement. In the 1992 Harvard Business Review debate “MBA: Is the Traditional Model Doomed?,” he describes the product of such programs as “people [who] are committed to no company and no industry but only to personal success, which they pursue based on academic credentials that are almost exclusively analytic, devoid of in-depth experience, tacit knowledge, or intuition.” Later, in his 2005 book “Managers, Not MBAs,” he writes, “Using the classroom to help develop people already practicing management is a fine idea, but pretending to create managers out of people who have never managed is a sham.”

Some may disagree with this stance. And considering that the demand for MBA degrees continues to remain high (as illustrated by the New York Times article “Bank Crisis Shifts Demand for M.B.A.'s” and the Graduate Management Admission Council’s own records “Total GMAT Tests Taken by Testing Year”), it does appear that employers do value these graduates. So, could it be that the conventional MBA program has become more of a recruiting tool that supplies employers with strong employees rather than future managers? Hard to tell.

On Harvard Business Review’s blog, in early 2009, several thinkers discussed problems and potential solutions on the forum “How to Fix Business Schools,” followed later by more posts on the same theme. Things are moving, nonetheless. Most schools seem to be hard at work refining their MBA programs by either tweaking their respective curriculums or their approaches to teaching, or both. A group of Harvard Business School faculty has even documented some of these developments in their 2010 book “Rethinking the MBA: Business Education at a Crossroads."

Unfortunately, the biggest problem, as it was articulated by Prof. Mintzberg (you can’t create managers in the classroom), is inherent to the conventional MBA program. In general, a lower graduating age means more time available to advance up the corporate ladder, which further means an increased probability of a successful business career. In addition, an increased number of success stories means a larger applicant pool (which also tends to push the average age lower, where managerial experience is low). And so, as long as schools can show some sort of causality between the MBA degree and a successful career, this cycle becomes self-reinforcing.

The advent of the Internet has made this causal relationship increasingly elusive. Not only that the knowledge taught in school has a lower value due to its widespread availability, but the limitations of our general understanding of how businesses work is becoming more apparent. And this, as one of the main drivers behind the value proposition of the conventional MBA program, will prevent the current revamping efforts undertaken by many schools from having any meaningful impact. A true overhaul will only occur when the business management body of knowledge successfully makes a significant leap forward.

However, as we wait for a new theory that would allow us to integrate currently disparate concepts and generate a more realistic business big picture, there is one easy and powerful solution for the MBA program: introduce a mandatory class of history of business and economic thought. 

In spite of the underlying implication of the word “history,” this class should be more about thought and historical circumstances, than about the completeness of the record. If developed and implemented in harmony with the rest of the program, the “history” class could have a significant impact on three dimensions. First, it would help students acquire not only a dynamic perspective of the business world, but also a better understanding of how various concepts are related or fit together. Second, the class would provide a platform that would “nudge” students into thinking critically about existing concepts, and further into creating their own. Lastly, the new capability of providing students with the more advanced skill of understanding the big picture could be a significant source of competitive advantage for any MBA program.

UPDATE 3/15/2011: This idea was also submitted as a "hack" at the Management Innovation eXchange (http://www.managementexchange.com/hack-67).