Improving MBAs after economic downturn

The economic downturn was widely considered to have revealed some shortcomings in what is taught at business schools, particularly in areas such as risk management, corporate governance and business ethics. As a result, there are growing calls for business schools to change their approach, and focus on helping to build a new way of doing business.

This is not to say that schools had not been working hard over the past decade to adapt the MBA to the changing demands of modern business. But the economic crisis certainly highlighted the need for further change – things such as embracing a broader, skills-focused and integrated curriculum, with more extensive coverage of ethics, risk management and sustainable business practices.

Changing times

To assess the requirements of the changing MBA, the Association of MBAs conducted a joint research project with Durham Business School, surveying 100 accredited business schools and 544 alumni from 57 countries to look at the value of the MBA – and how it might look in the future. These findings will heavily inform the review of the association’s accreditation criteria for quality MBA programmes in 2010.

One of the most striking findings was a move away from the shareholder value-dominated perspective of business. The MBA survey respondents agreed to a large or very large extent with statements such as ‘corporate social responsibility (CSR) should underpin the actions of organisations’, and ‘the MBA should adopt a stakeholder focus concerning all those affected by the actions of an organisation, rather than just a shareholder focus’.

Business schools seem even more convinced that a new approach is necessary. Eight in 10 agreed to a large or very large extent that MBAs should adopt a stakeholder focus rather than a shareholder one, while a similar proportion agreed that actions should be underpinned by CSR.

Risky business

Another key area where change appears to be needed is in the arena of risk. Alumni believe that there is a big difference between how risk was covered on their curriculum when they took their MBA, and the degree to which it needs to be covered in the current climate. Likewise, schools acknowledge that both risk management and strategic risk are two of the top three topics where there is the widest disconnect between what they offer in the current curriculum, and what they ought to be offering in the post-downturn world.

Be prepared

When business schools were asked how the MBA could be changed to better prepare students post-downturn and ensure it remains relevant to the changing economic climate, the top issue was sustainability. This reflects the growing concern across society that this is one of the most pressing issues on the global agenda.

When the responses of both alumni and business schools are combined, it is interesting to note that there is a shared consensus on the topics both sides believe are important in todays business climate. These include business policy and strategy, leadership, and entrepreneurship and change management, as well as external risk factors, business ethics and, finally, creativity and innovation.

The findings also highlight an appetite among alumni for a greater focus on the practical application of learning versus theory. A key question will be the way in which schools can develop the appropriate pedagogy to ensure that the teaching of this broader MBA will translate into long-term learning. Interestingly, the fact that business schools believe that they are putting far greater emphasis on these issues than alumni believe to be the case, highlights a disconnect between both sides. While this may only be an issue of perception, it is clearly one that needs to be addressed.

The clear message is that business schools are taking the lead in defining the MBA’s future agenda, with a dominant view that the degree should adopt a stakeholder focus over a shareholder one. The development of more rounded individuals with strong leadership skills, and the ability to integrate ethical, sustainable and stakeholder thinking into their management decisions, represents a clear steer for MBA providers as they design the MBA of tomorrow.

Jeanette Purcell, chief executive, Association of MBAs

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