The Evolution of the MBA in the USA
How US b-schools are redefining management study
Rishikesha T. Krishnan
In recent years, management education has come under fire. Pundits such as Henry Mintzberg have criticised business schools for creating MBAs with good analytical skills rather than managers with genuine leadership and execution abilities. Harvard Business School’s Rakesh Khurana has lamented the lack of focus on the “professional” dimensions of management. Another critic, Stanford’s Jeffrey Pfeffer, sees contemporary MBA programmes as promoting passive learning and failing to engage their bright students. In addition, the graduates of top MBA programmes have been widely criticised for their mercenary approach.
Acting on criticism
Leading US business schools have responded to these criticisms in curriculum reviews undertaken in the last few years. Relevance, linking theory and practice, integrated approaches to managerial problem-solving, leadership and greater attention to career planning and management are some of the themes that have been adopted in revised curricula.
The Kellogg School at Northwestern University, the Sloan School at MIT, the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University, the Johnson School at Cornell University and the Yale School of Management are among the schools taking the lead in revising their curriculum.
A major trend in several top business schools is providing students with real world, practical experience.
At the Johnson School, students participate in the financial decision-making of a $15-million hedge fund. Students at the Sloan School have access to different ‘labs’ — E (entrepreneurship) Lab, G (global) Lab, S (sustainability) Lab and so on — where they participate in organisation-sponsored projects to get hands-on experience. In the E Lab, for instance, students get to work at a start-up company on a specific problem.
At the Kellogg School, students are encouraged to choose experiential tracks of their choice. The existing tracks include an Asset Management Lab (underwritten by the school), a Medical Innovation Lab (involves joint projects with engineering and medicine students), a Real Estate Lab, an Analytical Consulting Lab and a Venture Lab.
Varied backgrounds, expertise
MBA students have varied backgrounds, expertise and experience. Yet, most business schools have a single cookie cutter approach to management whereby MBA students have to take a common core curriculum. In an effort to engage students more intensively, Stanford’s new MBA curriculum allows incoming students to take core courses at three different levels depending on their prior academic training. Students with a background in finance can move on to take advanced finance courses. This helps motivate and challenge all the students in the incoming class. Another Stanford effort at customisation is the ‘Small Seminar’ courses on critical analytical thinking where students work in small groups with faculty members on a cross-functional management topic. The faculty members use such cross-functional projects to assess students’ capabilities. Subsequently, faculty members assume the role of mentors and advise the students on course selection.
Harvard’s case-based general management curriculum has been a classic model of integrative learning. While few business schools have been able to emulate this in its true spirit, new approaches to integrative learning are emerging. At Yale, core courses are now centred around eight stakeholder perspectives rather than the conventional functions of management such as finance, marketing or HR management. Each stakeholder perspective cuts across different functions.
Faculty bring their contemporary research into the classroom as each session (or even part of a session) draws on the top experts on a particular theme. A pedagogic innovation, the ‘raw case,’ brings in the messiness of managerial reality — unstructured information, dynamic change and ambiguity — that complements the stakeholder approach.
Building on this integrated approach, Stanford’s ‘critical analytical thinking’ seminars in the first term promote a cross-functional approach to looking at management problems right from day one. Likewise, Kellogg offers courses that span at least two functional areas right after the core curriculum is completed.
More nuanced programmes
While leadership has always formed a part of the MBA curriculum, contemporary MBA programmes are getting more nuanced. Kellogg’s required course on ‘values and crisis decision-making,’ offered after students return from their summer internship, comprises discussions of cases that contain strong ethical dilemmas and concludes with a 24-hour crisis management simulation exercise. This course is based on the premise that while organisations will need to adopt values-based approaches to deal effectively with the challenges posed by multiple conflicting stakeholder interests, crises are likely to arise in spite of these approaches, which need to be tackled effectively.
At the Sloan School, students participate in intensive leadership workshops during the Sloan Innovation Period, a one-week interregnum during each term when structured courses make way for field trips, workshops and students’ participation in faculty research.
Stanford’s capstone leadership course towards the end of the second year allows students to probe their own strengths and weaknesses, critique their own leadership style and reflect on the career challenges ahead.
Most schools recognise that better career planning and management programmes will help MBAs reduce the mismatch between students’ interests and skills and the jobs they take, thereby making them more successful in their careers.
Cornell’s Johnson School starts with a series of ‘passport’ seminars that provide basic information about different fields through talks by alumni and follows up with ‘immersion’ courses taught by industry veterans that include field trips to see how the different sectors look in practice.
Most schools start career management initiatives early, sometimes even during orientation, and use detailed diagnostic exercises to help students know themselves better. At Kellogg, student clubs are even involved in the admissions process. At Sloan, students design many of the workshops in the Sloan Innovation Period.
Business schools have created specialised administration support departments (such as the career management centres) and use consultants to back-up faculty in leadership and career management initiatives. Many b-schools also use adjunct faculty extensively, particularly in experiential courses and team them up with regular faculty to blend theory and practice.
The alumni network is used to get the industry support required to make practice-oriented courses effective.
And, perhaps more importantly, far-sighted Deans at the top b-schools have led change efforts by creating a conducive context for change, carefully choosing faculty to lead curriculum and change efforts, communicating extensively with faculty, providing financial support and incentives for course development aligned to the new curriculum and raising funds and support from alumni and industry.
At Yale, Dean Joel Podolny even persuaded university administrators to allow him to reduce the size of the MBA programme for a few years to make major changes in the curriculum.
Our review shows that while changes are endemic, there is a wide variety in such innovative changes. True to the spirit of management, there does not seem to be any ‘one best way’, nor is there a ‘best practice’ that can be easily adopted by Indian business schools.
We are not advocating that Indian business schools make changes in their curriculum just because the schools in the US are doing so.
However, to address the concerns raised against management education, Indian b-schools need to make some changes in ways that are suited to and rooted in our context. This, unfortunately, does not seem to be happening and management curricula, even in leading Indian business schools, have remained frozen in their functional edifice.
While Indian business schools, including the IIMs, have flirted with some of the ideas being practised in US business schools, they have often fallen short on implementation. At the leadership level, failure to comprehend the dynamics of change management has meant that most institutes have tended to slip back into the status quo.
The lack of professional support staff, a reluctance to use external consultants, poor networking with alumni and falling back on faculty as administrators have proved to be major barriers at the operational level. Indian business schools have much to learn about their own management from their western counterparts!
(The writers are faculty members of the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore.)