What Business Really Thinks of the MBA

The research that led to this 2010 book also informed the new changes to Harvard's MBA program

The changes Harvard Business School’s MBA program announced yesterday were largely informed by research that resulted in the 2010 book Rethinking the MBA: Business Education at a Crossroads ” by HBS professors Srikant M. Datar, David A. Garvin, and research associate Patrick G. Cullen.

Initially, Garvin and Datar were asked to put together a workshop on the future of MBA education for the 100th anniversary of the Harvard Business School in 2008. They did so and found so much interest in the topic that the workshop led to a book. They enlisted researcher Cullen and the trio conducted extensive interviews with more than 30 current and former business executives and an equal number of business school deans.

What they found was that executives who hire MBAs as well as the deans of business schools consistently identify the same set of opportunities and unmet needs. They view these topics as poorly or incompletely addressed by business schools today but that, if they were to be well researched and properly taught, would make the degree have far more impact.

The Harvard profs found that MBA graduates increasingly need to be more effective: they need to have a global mindset, for example, develop leadership skills of self-awareness and self-reflection; and develop an understanding of the roles and responsibilities of business, and the limitations of models and markets. “A lot of the ideas percolated up from that research,” says Brian Kenny, chief marketing and communications officer for Harvard Business School. Indeed, the new first year course that Harvard is introducing is based largely on the deficiencies in MBA education identified by executives interviewed by Garvin and Datar.

Along with the deans, the executives identified eight essential business needs for the future, according to the book. We’ve taken their comments published in the book to flesh out how business generally believes MBA education falls short. All of the quotes are anonymous to encourage complete candor.

A Global Perspective

First on the list is the desire for a more global perspective. The goal was not simply for students to acquire abstract, theoretical knowledge about the world’s economic and political systems. Rather, “they needed to understand, at a granular, how-to-get-it-done level, the challenges and requirements of living and working in differing societal, organizational, and commercial contexts,” wrote the three. Here’s what several executives told the authors:

The first truly global generation is now coming through business school. But we’re not yet at the point of ‘one world,’ in the sense that cultural norms are collapsing to a single model. Students need to understand how to do business in different countries and cultures. They need training in asking the right questions.

There are simple, practical aspects to globalization—time differences, the stress of travel, the need to establish relationships before videoconferencing. Then there are the harder, more complex issues that involve cultural differences. If you know the culture, you’ll see it reflected in the business. For instance, our Japanese organization doesn’t tick the way our other units do. Then the questions become: What do you accept, and what not? What do you tolerate because that’s just the way things are? What do you understand, but reject?

Leadership Development

A second area of broadly recognized need is leadership development. Virtually all of the top business schools aspire to ‘develop leaders,’ yet according to Garvin and Datar, their efforts in this area are widely viewed as falling short. Here’s what executives had to say in their book:

MBAs need to learn to work as members of a team. Immediately after business school, they’re rock stars—they out produce and outperform everybody else. But those same skills get in the way after the first few years on the job. Then they need to be able to do different things: build a well-functioning team, motivate a team, and delegate. It’s important for them to be good at both leading and following, and helping others.

MBA programs are heavy on IQ but poor on EQ (emotional intelligence). Those who have EQ have a much clearer path to long-term success. High intellect and command of the toolkit are not enough to make it. The problem often comes down to a lack of self-reflection and self-examination.

Students need small-group experiences. To get the most out of them, they also need training, guidance, and structured opportunities for reflection to help them unearth those things that will be difficult for them in the work environment.

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