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What MBA Programs Are Worth

Basil Enwegbara

Once it was philosophy that reigned. Architecture, science, law, and medicine at some time also each had their own glory. Business management education did not make its way into the professional dictionary until several decades after industrial revolution. Before then, business skills were learned through master-apprentice relationships. It also neither needed specialized scientific qualifications nor a class of men with managerial sophistication other than ordinary literacy, practical experience, and personal initiative. But as industries became more and more competitive and complex, the industry inevitably professionalized business management.

This transition was a slow one, full of trials and errors. But the arrival of globalization at the end of the twentieth century changed not only the pace, but also the manner in which competition is conducted within industries. Now that the battlefield had broadened, professional warriors were required to win the war. Since MBA graduates were recognized to understand the battlefields, industry did not hesitate to seek them out.

These best warriors cost a lot of money, and industries did not hesitate to pay the bills and in most cases overpaid greatly. As the demand for MBA graduates outnumbered the supply, more and more business schools emerged to take advantage of this shortage. Not only did this proliferation lower the standard of education, but it also resulted in an overproduction of MBA graduates.

But how did most business school come to accept lower standards as a way to be in the market? How was it that well established universities did not resist the temptation to join the bandwagon? Could it be because it all started without a well-defined ground? Could it be because business schools assumed learning rather than promoting it?

Perhaps MBA programs did not question whether the structures and processes -- including the courses, class, grades, examinations, classroom, credit hours, and lecturers -- were meeting the needs of the customers. Perhaps MBA programs, while enhancing quantitative and critical thinking about the old industrial economy, failed to serve the practical needs of industry.

The problems are numerous. First, the student’s individual thought-process was replaced with a flawed and disconnected group-think system, merely because of the notion that business success could only come through collaborative efforts.

Second, the professors were evaluated not based on their teaching or on the performance of their students, but on their publications and ability to attract money from industry. So teaching became peripheral as professors faced these uphill tasks that could only make them relevant in academic politics.

Third, business schools assumed that teaching and learning were the same thing. Thus they filled their programs with all sorts of courses for the student, even when it was clear that what the professor was teaching was not necessarily what the student was learning.

What the student was interested in learning might be far from what the professor was interested in teaching. This set the student and the professor further apart. Wasn’t Frederick the Great right in saying “he who defends everything defends nothing?” In other words, isn’t it obvious that in wanting to teach the student also everything, the business school denied the student the ability to build upon his or her own strengths?

The frustrated students are now feeling restless. As globalization drives industry deeper and deeper into the battlefield, students are frustrated that their expectations are not being met as businesses look for people who think differently, behave differently, and make quicker and better judgment in today’s risky business world.

In such hypercompetition, industry expected to find business schools less analytical and more practically oriented. They expected MBAs to have more interpersonal communications skills, more resistance to stress, a better more perception of threshold cues, and a greater ability to understand technological leadership. In fact, while industries looked for formidable leaders of empires as well as conquerors of a chaotic battlefield, all they found were fewer issue-based curriculums and fewer future-oriented MBA programs.

So to survive in today’s environment, business schools must undergo the needed transformations. First they must question the current relevance of their programs; that is, what values do MBA students carry along with them to the marketplace?

The second question they have to ask themselves is the relevance of the present strict pedagogical sequence, with progress ruled by examinations. Shouldn’t the present dominant role of examination be at least reduced, if not eliminated?

Why should the professor, the student, and the practitioner not think of themselves as permanent learners while taking into account their differing competencies? What about the quest of focusing learning on the student’s way of organizing knowledge and defining problems contextually? What about understanding that getting the student think about issues and situations in novel ways could help enhance student’s capacity to think and act creatively? Shouldn’t the importance of leadership training be reinforced? One thing is clear, and let us put it this way: industry may decide to bypass business schools by setting up the type of business education that it actually needs.