In a world obsessed with the MBA degree, few have questioned its relevance in today’s business environment. Fewer have doubted the way business education is carried on across the globe. In the wake of the global financial meltdown, three Harvard scholars—Prof Srikant M. Datar, Prof David A. Garvin and Patrick G. Cullen—took up a project to examine the way business schools conduct themselves. The result is a thought-provoking book, Rethinking the MBA, launched this year. In an interview with Arindam Mukherjee, Datar, who is Arthur Lowes Dickinson Professor at Harvard Business School, lists the MBA’s ills. Excerpts:
What made you question the way business education happens across the world?
The project started during the 100th anniversary celebration of the Harvard Business School. As we began conducting our initial interviews, many executives and deans we spoke to felt it was long overdue for someone to take a hard look at the state of business education. As we began collecting data, we were surprised to see a hollowing out of the MBA marketplace and a 25-30 per cent decline in enrolment at highly ranked US and European schools (outside the top 15). Prospective applicants were being discouraged by many employers from going for full-time MBA programmes, and students who attended were not engaged with the academic curriculum. Executives repeatedly questioned the value-addition of the MBA degree. They identified a large set of unmet needs in areas such as global perspectives, leadership development, critical, innovative and integrative thinking and execution and implementation. It was clear that business education was facing serious challenges.
Where was the main problem—in their approach or their curriculum?
For 50 years, business schools have emphasised analytics, models and statistics. This was very much needed as business schools moved from trade schools to ones based on scholarship. We believe this research emphasis must continue. The concern we heard, however, was that students understood the functions of management such as marketing, operations and finance but had not developed skills in critical thinking, problem-finding and problem-framing, and were ill-equipped to identify and frame unstructured problems managers routinely encounter. Moreover, the focus on theory, models and statistics developed analysts rather than leaders and entrepreneurs who knew how to get things done.
So what do you prescribe?
The business landscape is shifting from leaders with high authority and low conflict to one with lower authority and greater conflict. This requires a different approach towards people and leadership. We need to train MBA students to better understand the people they will lead—workers, salespeople, design engineers or employees in different countries. Managers need to build skills to connect with a varied set of minds. Unlike other professions, management is a profession where success comes only if a manager can motivate and inspire others. That requires skill and practice.
We believe that some rebalancing from the current focus on “knowing” (the facts, framework and theories that make up the core understanding of a profession or practice) to “doing” (the capabilities and techniques that enable one to practise one’s chosen field) and “being” (values, attitudes and beliefs that constitute one’s character, worldview and professional identity) must occur. At the same time, the “knowing” component itself needs to place more emphasis on “thinking” (for example, how to think integrative by absorbing seemingly conflicting ideas such as a shareholder versus a stakeholder perspective).
Many executives told us that they believed innovation and execution would be critical skills in the coming decades. These skills are best developed through experiential learning. Just like swimming is best learned by getting into water and not through a book, innovative thinking requires repeated practice in real-life problem-solving.
What do you think should be changed from the present system?
We are not proposing that everything be scrapped and rebuilt from scratch, but a few important curriculum changes are needed. These changes require a rethinking of the pedagogy. Courses in areas such as critical and integrative thinking and leadership development are best done in small groups. Innovative thinking is best taught as a project-based class focused on real problems. Beyond the lecture and case study methods, business schools need to think about supplementing academic knowledge with experience-based learning through interactions with businesses and NGOs outside the classroom. Our most basic point is that business schools need to embrace a wide range of courses and pedagogies.
This applies to India as well....
There is tremendous opportunity for Indian business schools to implement ideas like critical and innovative thinking and leadership development. For example, the problems and challenges of healthcare, education, rural development and poverty alleviation offer many opportunities for students to practise and develop innovative thinking skills.
What’s wrong with the present business education system in India?
US business schools devote many more resources to research compared to India. But there are a few things Indian business schools need to look at seriously. The very best Indian business schools need to do more research in the context of India. That is, they need to do much more research on the problems that Indian businesses and markets face. This will open up opportunities for some exciting research.
The dramatic growth in the number of B-schools in India has created tremendous challenges for finding quality faculty and training them on modern business thinking. The faculty issues need to be addressed urgently if more students are to get a quality business education. Some faculty members will come from the academic track but great efforts also need to be made to attract high quality faculty from among practising managers. Finally, more needs to be done to build the ecosystem around business education—encouraging joint research, conferences, seminar series, workshops, academic journals and widespread sharing of research and cases.
But that would require a system overhaul and complete change in curriculum....
India does not need to take a linear path and follow the US system as it exists today. As we describe in the book, the leading edge of change is already visible in the US. India can be at the forefront of this change by reforming its curriculum and education to meet the needs of its society today. Some Indian business schools have already implemented some of these ideas. As others follow, I am optimistic that Indian business schools can train managers far more capable of dealing with the complex yet fascinating challenges and problems that India faces.
That would still mean an overhaul of the current system of business education....
Yes, to some extent, but in ways that I believe are exciting and rewarding. Each school should determine what it wants to change and how fast it wants to do it. But all MBA programmes need to devote more attention to teaching some form of thinking and reasoning skills that serve as the foundation for making better judgements. All MBA programmes also need to focus more attention on leadership, ethics and social responsibility that have become essential to effective management today. We need to set our sights high enough to develop managers not only tutored in theories but also in how to act decisively and with integrity.