Business Education Trends: Time to Change the MBA?

Arthur Kendall
23 April 2012

It feels appropriate to be writing about business education trends and international MBA programmes on St George's day. The legendary character and the traditional executive education programme both embody solid, time-honoured values in an uncertain and rapidly-changing world.

Education – and continued learning and development – is the key which unlocks future growth and innovation, so it is an important part of any organisation's governance – especially as it will strongly influence the behaviour of participants. Inspired by my Business English classes, which of late I have been focussing on the subject, and recent articles in the business education section of the Financial Times newspaper, I felt it is time for me to begin to set out my views on the subject, while reflecting the view of commentators on and participants in business education.

MBAs have been the mainstay of executive development for many years now and offer an increasingly wide-ranging curriculum for ambitious future leaders. Indeed tracking business education trends means tracking MBA trends. Yet more and more companies are recognising that the predominantly finance and accounting based course is limited in preparing people for the wider socio-cultural environment in which modern, globalised and connected business – of any size – operates.

New world, new approach: including the arts and social sciences

The current approach has been criticised for contributing to the financial crisis, “churning out graduates too focused on making money and unable to think across multiple disciplines” (“A Liberal Sprinkling of the Arts”, FT, 16th April 2012). If the purpose of the MBA is to prepare people for leading international businesses, it is vital that it reflects real life and has the same underlying attention to ethics and good governance as we advocate for all organisations.

This means a more rounded curriculum, founded on corporate governance best practice and – for me – including elements of arts and social science programmes. Some providers have embraced this change and represent a change in direction in business education trends. The EMBA offered by Spain's IE business school and Brown University in Rhode Island has a third of its curriculum dedicated to less conventional subjects, including an arts class studying the history of hip-hop music, a theatre class to develop public speaking skills and a philosophy class on the meaning of work and identity.

Encouraging people in this way to look beyond purely business and especially financial subject matter helps them develop a better understanding of themselves, other people and the relationships between them, beyond current team-building and leadership content, as valuable as that is. It can also lead to much greater problem-solving capabilities through developing creative thinking and consensus over a command and control managerial style.

Here's a radical thought – why shouldn't an MBA be fun?

Introducing such activities into the curriculum turns what can, at times, be heavy-going, even overwhelming (especially for part-time, in-work students) into a fun and rewarding experience. And why not? There is a tendency in traditional education and most sectors of business that fun is unproductive and anything involving fun by definition should not be taken seriously.

But countless studies also show that a happy, healthy workforce is a more productive one. If people enjoy their work they are obviously going to do it better. When you do something you enjoy – which for me means having fun, it doesn't feel like work and I have always tried to do so both in my training activities and in business – and for the most part succeeded. For me, therefore, introducing more fun into the curriculum would be one of the most positive business education trends.

Having fun does not mean taking things less seriously, any more than making things simple necessarily means making them easy (though it does make them easier, to understand and deal with) – and there's a time and place for everything, of course. The key is how you approach a situation, in a more positive way. My students and clients have also benefitted from this more human and natural approach and regularly tell me so. It makes people more receptive to new ideas and allows them to learn and change almost without realising, just as young children acquire their native language, rather than learning it.

Online business, online MBA

One of the other major business education trends – indeed of learning generally – is the role of technology and the effectiveness of online courses such as the EMBA programmes offered by many business schools. Offering such programmes has reduced the barriers to poorer students to access such tertiary education and so made it more democratic and less elitist whilst maintaining international recognition.

Not all businesses or business schools are convinced of the comparable quality of the online version of the MBA, but it clearly offers several benefits. Studies conclude that students absorb information from lectures downloaded from the internet better than they do from attending them in person; the ability to rewind, play again and generally focus on certain parts and themes of the lecture clearly helps. On the other hand, the MBA is about a lot more than learning how to read a balance sheet or write a business plan. A major part of the MBA programme is learning to work as a team and indeed lead teams, and some argue that internet chatrooms are simply not as effective as face-to-face sessions.

While future leaders will still usually need to manage people in a physical environment, technology has enabled a new generation of remote teams in real business and so the online MBA clearly offers advantages over conventional business education. The economic downturn in the West has accelerated the trend to reduce costs by replacing business travel with, video conferencing, instant messaging and other communication tools. Add to that the explosion in cloud computing and online collaboration software (indeed our other main business interest is in online collaboration for boards) and having executives working together from wherever they are is no longer the logistical headache it once was.

I would go as far as to say (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) that while face-to-face contact will always be necessary to ensure maximum understanding and cooperation, arguably many remote teams, by necessity, actually communicate better because of these tools than people working in the same building!

I have many years experience dealing with clients and providers around the world and have had mixed results. As a provider myself, I have always been successful in remote client relationships by being as open, realistic and communicative as possible. I have not always had the same approach from my suppliers! What is clear to me is that the potential is there, it is a reality for many business and indeed non-commercial organisations – big and small – and so it should be a part of any executive MBA or other business education programme.

Time for a new international business education programme?

Some, such as the former head of the Association of MBAs, Jeanette Purcell, believe it's time to rip up the existing MBA and start afresh. Purcell argues this would allow for the development of skills as well as knowledge, to harness students existing experience and combine e-learning with intensive face-to-face tuition or coaching in an integrated and innovative programme.

Instinctively, I agree whole-heartedly with this view. Despite – or perhaps because of (!) – my own experience of intensely integrated online business and personal life, as a teacher and trainer, personal contact will always play a part in the best MBA or equivalent programmes and business education trends . Ms Purcell's suggested approach would combine the best of both worlds, allowing knowledge and skills to be transferred in the most suitable way.

At Applied Corporate Governance, we will be launching our first ebook course soon. As with the online MBA, our wish is to allow many more people than we can reach in person to benefit from our experience. It is also our intention, however, to return to – and expand on – our international physical seminar and consultation programme. So, as with everything we do, we hope ourselves, in our small way, to influence business education trends!


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