5 Questions That Will Change the MBA

by Aman Singh Das | November 02, 2010

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2,500: Number of business schools in India

156,250: The approximate number of business school graduates every year

100: Number of sustainability jobs on offer at Net Impact's career expo this year

When a panel begins by laying out numbers like these, the discussion is bound to invigorating. At the lunch panel on Day 2 of Net Impact 2010 these served as the preface to a discussion that, while wide-ranging, always came back to a singular theme: Where is management education headed and how, if at all, should the MBA curriculum be redefined? On hand were two renowned professors: Srikant Datar, the Arthur Lowes Dickinson Professor of Accounting from Harvard University (and author of Rethinking the MBA: Business Education at a Crossroads) and James Walsh, the A.F. Thurnau Professor with hosts Ross School of Business, University of Michigan.

The Role of Business: Profits or Profits & Responsibility?

According to Datar, there are two kinds of business school graduates: Those that see business as responsible for dictating change and the others who see business as the cause of all problems in the world. "For business schools this is a real challenge: Should we accept responsibility for fixing this paradigm or do nothing?" he said, adding, "This then leads to introspection on curriculum."

What is the Dominant Value of an MBA?

For Walsh, the dominant strength of an MBA education lies in whether business schools are the source of all evil. Especially in recent years, he said, the backlash has been heavy and consistent. "So for faculty, the challenge is to appreciate the complexities of business and teach by example," he offered.

For Datar, the role of business, and therefore of the MBA, is much more pragmatic. "Business is about leading people and delegating, making things happen, not doing everything yourself," he said. There also needs to be a realization that "sense of purpose must be very high on your priority list." And this is where the MBA curriculum fails, he said.

Citing former Dean of Harvard Business School Edwin Gay who used to say the "purpose of business is to make a decent profit decently," Datar added that this notion had long been forgotten and must be reaffirmed to "rebalance business school curriculum."

What Defines the MBA Curriculum?

Walsh emphasized that the amount of money students pour into an MBA education should not be ignored. "When you're investing over $100k, the expectations and aspirations tend to be very high. It’s the commercialization of education at its best," he said.

Do Rankings Matter?

Ask a student and the answer will be a resounding yes. Factors like employability, job placement and career opportunities often define the final choice for students. And, whether you call it commercialization or astute decision making, business schools have had to succumb. While neither professor was willing to answer the question head-on, Walsh offered a realistic view: "Rankings are a big issue but they also coincide with what corporations, NGOs and students expect from us. In the end it comes down to where we stand competitively." Datar had a different view: "There are some schools that really care about the rankings and others who care but don’t change anything. I admire the ones that take a longer term view of the value of our education."

Can MBA Students Learn Humility?

Their final words of advice centered on a message not often heard from business schools: Humility. "We want students to graduate with a sense of confident humility. They must acknowledge the value of what they have learnt but be humble enough to know that you don’t have all the answers," said Walsh. Datar backed him up, adding, "Students need to understand and appreciate differences in backgrounds, experiences and perspectives. The world is changing fundamentally and problems are going to be confronted in a completely different way. Leadership traits that helped us succeed in the 1990s won't work today."

Next: I'll discuss the panel I moderated on diversity as a strategic opportunity: How do companies leverage diversity to build human capital and brand value?

Previous posts from Net Impact 2010: The Sustainability Jobs Debate: Reporting from the Net Impact Conference

Filed Under: CSR

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