Winter at Lofoten (2008). By Tackbert. Public Domain.

What Biz School Would Look Like If It Was Interested In Impact

Forrest ChristianLearning 2 Comments

Recently, some deans of business schools have begun blogging on things MBAish at BizDeansTalk. It’s an interesting read, partly because I’ve never spent much time with business school folks.

(With my wife being an art historian, we just normally got the scientists and humanities folks for dinner. Other than practicing artists, I suppose we never had a profession-related academic in the house. Not even an engineer. Oh, wait: we had a comp sci ABD stay over last month, whom I promised to send out information about some of Lord Brown’s work and haven’t.)

Of interest to me here is Kai Peters (Ashridge Business School) issuing “A research challenge“. He describes wanting to achieve a more effective learning environment at their university for the MBA students. He laments the current state of affairs, which he calls “a talk-and-chalk sheep dip approach to learning”, pointing out the learning literature is fairly large and consistent in saying that this isn’t all that effective.

“Imagine what business education would look like if schools were really interested in impact??” he asks.

For starters it probably wouldn’t look like a business school. But an MBA program that took that approach would not survive in either the market or the academy.

MBAs do not make particularly stellar CEOs. Prior research showed that non-MBA CEOs were more profitable and had fewer company failures than MBA CEOs, over a particular period of time. Of course, we can posit that MBAs are more likely to come from outside the corporation. They are also more likely to become CEOs in companies that have failed succession plans. Some companies are willing to send future CEOs to graduate school, but they apparently go more often to something else. (In 1998, 26% of Fortune 100 CEOs had MBAs but 37% had an advanced degree in something else, usually the law.)

It’s not that MBAs make bad CEOs, necessarily. It’s just that it doesn’t seem to do much good. The MBA doesn’t make a good manager or executive. It does make a good consultant, but even the consulting firms are asking about that now.

If business schools were really interested in impact, they just wouldn’t look much like business schools. They would have opportunities for action learning, for applied learning, for creation and testing of hypotheses of strategy. It would look, in other words, like a really well run company. There is a reason why Inglis became an incubator for future CEOs, why so many Fortune 500 CEOs grew up at GE. These companies are the learning environment. The business degree provided access to academics and to a time to reflect on research. But the work environment provided the real learning about business.

People who are good at school are not always those who are good at work. The correlation exists, but it’s a weak correlation. SAT scores tie to IQ, both of which predict school performance but not business performance. Something, sadly, is terribly missing in our theories of education, across the board.

I’m not so sure that a good school of any type wouldn’t look a good deal like Jerry Harvey’s graduate courses at George Washington University, where he went out of his way to not۰teach his not۰students. However, I doubt that many people will pay for this type of education, relying as it does on the “student” to own their learning. Any school that adopted this wholeheartedly would quickly be relegated to Weirdo status with St. John’s and Reed College and lose its status and market.

There are odd programs out there. McGill’s international program (seems to be tied to Henry Mintzberg) comes to mind and I’m sure that others would if I knew all that much about business schools. But they don’t seem to be burning up the business press or garnering much enthusiasm from the business school industry.

Perhaps educators should face the fact that most MBA students don’t want education but certification, a piece of paper that says that they meet a requirement for many positions.

This argument totally falls apart for foreign students in North American business schools, at least from the research I’ve seen. I’m not sure why. Perhaps by coming to a foreign country forces you to own your education rather than passively accepting the talk &chalk spoon feeding.

Perhaps you, gentle reader, have a better understanding of these issues and wish to start a discussion. Ashridge is obviously to be commended for its search and I hope that it finds a workable solution that allows it to maintain its market while also creating better educational opportunities for its students. Voices of MBAs past who now educate managers while working might provide interesting perspective. I’ll be interested to see what they do over the next ten to twenty years.

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