MBA Makeovers: A Marketing Ploy or True Innovation?

by Andrea Carter on

To many observers, the historic crisis that wrecked economic havoc throughout the world seemed an appropriate time to trigger a reexamination of graduate business education. After all, said the critics, many of the business and government leaders whose fingerprints were all over the financial wreckage had been trained at top business schools.

So it seems just as appropriate to ask how have MBA programs changed in the aftermath of the great economic meltdown of 2008? The answer: Not very much. There have been lots of changes in curriculum, but almost all of them had been in the works before the worst of the crisis. So the raft of curriculum reviews that had led to changes often billed as “revolutionary” at Stanford, Berkeley’s Haas School, Yale, Columbia, and Darden would have occurred regardless of the crisis.

Even The Wharton School’s recent review, which began in May of 2009 and culminated in a Dec. 3 announcement of a new MBA overhaul, hardly addresses concerns brought to light by the financial crisis. It largely puts more flexibility into the MBA program for students, allows faculty to streamline the introduction of new courses, and provides free exec ed training to grads. The only impact on ethics–which became a big issue among critics blaming business schools for having a contributing role in the economic collapse–is that Wharton will combine six classes on ethics and six classes on law into a single subject area.

So what actually lies beneath the hype of these supposedly new and improved curricula? Are they mere marketing ploys to expand the applicant pool, or are the curricular changes truly designed with MBA students—and the businesses they will lead—in mind?

Both.

As the landscape of business grows in complexity and the range of stakeholders diversifies, it would be foolish for business schools to think they can operate under the guise of business-as-usual. In fact, it would be self-contradictory. Any core business course will teach you the significance of industry changes and doing what’s necessary to stay relevant. From an organizational perspective, therefore, it is strategically imperative for business schools to keep up with the ever-expanding complexities of business. This applies, also, to the Harvards, the Stanfords, and the Whartons of the world; schools that continue to draw thousands of applicants each year with just a fraction of available seats to fill.

Wharton Dean Thomas Robertson says the school’s curricular re-design reflects an evolving business landscape and the school’s belief that leaders of the future must be able to think globally, manage responsibly, and anticipate and adapt to change. With the appointment of Vice Deans in Global Initiatives, Social Impact, and Innovation as part of the new design, Dean Robertson says Wharton’s new curriculum is intended to help the school “retain our leadership position in business education.” Not a word about how these changes are in response to the financial crisis.

On the other side of the coin, business schools must conduct themselves in a manner that is no different from the firms that their MBA graduates will eventually lead. What this means is they must make themselves stand out in a market that is saturated with MBA program options.

The trick then, for business schools, is to strike a balance between giving the market what it needs, while marketing themselves as meeting industry demands in a way that is distinctly different from all the rest. In managing this balancing act, a very fine line is tread between actual curricular innovation and business school marketing.

There are, of course, exceptions–and some of them address how the MBA market itself has changed. Before Stanford’s overhaul in 2007, students began the MBA program with a set of “tools” courses like they do at most other business schools. MBAs could place out of up to nine core classes with passing grades on placement tests, but students often preferred to move through the program with their classmates. The upshot: many candidates ended up in classes below their background or ability. Shockingly, a survey of grads by Stanford discovered that one-third of the students said their undergraduate degree was more intellectually challenging than Stanford’s MBA program. “There was a lower degree of engagement in academics,” says Stanford Dean Garth Saloner. “Professors would have said that students were disinterested. Focus groups of our students showed that the program wasn’t challenging enough, mainly because the population had changed.” A new MBA curriculum addressed this important need and more.

MOVING THINGS AROUND ON THE EDGES.

The reality, however, is that  although many business schools are trumpeting re-designed curricula, few of them are truly transformative or radical.

At the end of the day, the MBA is still a general management degree says Sarah Gardial. Gardial is the president of MBA Roundtable, a consortium of business schools dedicated to curricular innovation at the graduate business level. Last month, the Darden School hosted an MBA Roundtable conference at the University of Virginia to discuss MBA curricular innovation.

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  • http://www.oneplanetmba.org Jonathan Gosling

    It sounds as if these schools have not noticed the radical challenges facing us – as economies and more importantly, as inhabitants of a stressed planet. US lifestyles rely on the ecosystems services of the equivalent of 5 planet-earths. If MBA courses are simply pandering to the unrealistic wishes of their largely unworldly customers, who will take a lead in bringing some sense to management education?

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