Quo Vadis, MBA?

By Erik H. Schlie

Despite the current crisis, the MBA degree remains the preferred option for those seeking a solid 360 degree general management education. Yet, we have to ask: how are these revered three letters granted by prestigious business schools around the world adapting to an ever faster changing environment amidst ever higher levels of uncertainty and ambiguity?

The MBA Trinity: Knowledge, Skills, Values

The total immersion experience of an MBA is about combining three critical elements. First, there is knowledge to be absorbed, i.e., exposure to new concepts, frameworks and tools. That’s obvious. Every MBA programme must transfer a sound knowledge base that sticks sustainably and will not become obsolete within a few years after graduation. (It is also true that MBA programmes tend to overemphasise the pure knowledge dimension.) The second element is skills. Communicating effectively, leading a negotiation, managing a team, coping with diversity (of opinions and of backgrounds) – these are all highly valuable skills-based learning elements. The third and final element refers to values or ‘managerial virtues’. What are the values I will personally choose to embrace as a manager? What is my managerial identity? How can I contribute to practising good citizenship? Business schools are rather good at delivering on the first two items – but many are still finding their path on the values dimension. Admittedly, it is the most difficult one to get right as it requires fostering deep reflection among MBA students and sending them off on an inner journey of personal growth.

Quo Vadis: Paving the Future for MBA Programmes

What innovative elements can (or should) MBA programmes embrace in order to remain leaders in educating future managers? Here are but a few examples:
Not all the learning happens in the classroom: we must acknowledge that a total MBA experience also comprises the out-of-classroom sphere – the one that professors do not directly influence. When you assemble a highly diverse and bright group of eager young people, they equally learn a lot from one another. Self-reflection and soul-searching about one’s unique contribution to making the world a better place is as important as calculating a WACC correctly. The trick is to create an open, yet safe environment to enable such discoveries and to experiment with innovative, non-traditional classroom formats.

Interdisciplinary approaches ‘beyond business’: smartly integrated non-business disciplines create a grounded sense of purpose among students. Our goal should be to educate well-rounded individuals – not merely experts of technical skills – with a deep sense of responsibility for their people, their company and the wider community. Injecting the humanities into management, for example, can help foster critical thinking skills and holistic perspectives.

Creating ‘change agents’ with leadership skills: the single most valued personal asset is the ability to cope with all facets of change in today’s ambiguous and fast-paced world. Experiential learning formats are the pathway to furnishing these skills. Change is something that must be experienced in order to master it when it truly matters.

Bringing ‘live’ cases into the classroom: MBA programmes should expose students to more real and ‘live’ challenges, in addition to the traditional classroom materials. This requires involving the real protagonists and creating unique ‘live’ learning formats that break the boundaries of the conventional case session.

Increased awareness for global challenges and their solutions: we have to employ methodologies like design thinking to enable students to discover viable out-of-the-box solutions to problems of broader social concern. What’s good for the people at the ‘base of the pyramid’ can equally become a flourishing business proposition.

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