In support of the individual

Eamonn Walsh argues that the broad approach of an MBA education meets business needs

The MBA is the key passage for successful professionals who wish to transfer from functional specialisms into general management. Business Schools identify talent and expose it to a firm grounding in the key business disciplines. Nevertheless, business schools are coming under increased scrutiny.

Many believe that the traditional MBA is failing to meet the new needs of business and there are legitimate concerns that business schools are failing to create tomorrow’s leaders.

Largely, these difficulties stem from the changing nature of both the firm and its environment. The elaborate managerial hierarchies that characterised the corporation are now obsolete. The business environment is no longer static. The revolution in information and communication technologies has flattened hierarchies. New competitors appear from nowhere. New capabilities to destabilise a geo-political balance transform nightmares into reality.

The case study, long the mainstay of an MBA curriculum, is symptomatic of these problems. A case study is successful as long as history repeats itself – it is an exercise in perfect hindsight. While it may be an ideal pedagogy in the fields of medicine and psychiatry, it is unclear that it is of value when both the subjects under examination and their environments will never be repeated.

MBA programmes should continue to ensure that participants have a firm grounding in the core business disciplines and good business schools successfully identify talent. But this is not enough. More must be done to develop the student as an individual.

Some students have an aptitude for analysis, others a spirit of entrepreneurship and others have a passion for people. Too many MBA programmes fail to acknowledge this and present their students with a homogenising experience. Our challenge is to ensure that students understand how to work with others that have the strengths that they do not have. While modesty has never been the hallmark of an MBA, a cult based upon individual heroes is a poor recipe for success in troubled times.

MBA programmes can cultivate this diversity by placing greater emphasis on working in teams and creating alternative pathways that allow individuals to develop. Our ability to create these alternative pathways – real-time uncertain pathways rather than a case study that has been sanitised for their protection – will ensure that business schools meet the needs of today’s business environment.

Starting new enterprises in a structured, supportive environment is one example of how MBA students can develop their entrepreneurial talents and analyse complicated situations. While many of these enterprises may fail to materialise, that in itself is a valuable learning experience with minimal consequences.

For the lucky ones, it creates a basis for a successful career. For example, last year, one of our students built a successful international enterprise in less than six months while another developed an entirely new business model for ready-made meals.

Within universities, there are many opportunities for MBAs to team up with technologists and create new enterprises. For example, one of our graduates is working on cryptography services that facilitate e-business.

For those with neither an interest nor an aptitude for new business development many opportunities exist to create novel learning experiences. By identifying discrete three-month projects within firms and non-governmental organisations, MBA students have an opportunity to make a difference and to develop their leadership skills.

The changing nature of both the corporation and the business environment poses significant new challenges for the business school. The key to meeting these challenges is to recognise that individual capacities differ and that new pedagogies are necessary.

A talent for flexible responses to unfolding events will be the mark of tomorrow’s business leader.

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