Learning by Doing

MBA’s Practice-Teaching Methods Are Elaborate and Effective

There is a reason why MBA programmes cost as much as they do. You actually pay for someone else’s precious knowhow and experience, hoping to grasp as much as you can from their acumen and mind set. That someone could be faculty, fellow students or the real life practitioners you meet almost daily as part of your practical education. The immediate practical application of an MBA degree is what makes it stand out from all other forms of postgraduate education.

Hone your soft skills

The 2014 GMAC Employer survey shows that MBA degree holders with excellent soft skills are in great demand. Universum’s 2014 survey of executive’s expectations of the 2020 talent market is also unequivocal: in evaluating top talent, employers consider nothing other than work experience, followed by personality and communication skills in second and third place. So, a combination of highly practical knowledge and hands on experience, together with good soft skills, is the golden package that companies are ready to go to great lengths to acquire and keep.

The GMAC Employer survey also shows that employers actually do expect business schools to teach not just the ‘hard’ skills of analytical and strategic thinking, accounting, finance and funding, business plans, etc., but also oral and written communication, presentation and negotiation skills and adaptability. The most in-demand profile type is “leader” – one who knows how to manage both people and processes, is pro-active, result-driven and innovative, but also leads through personal example, charisma and engagement. The ideal candidate with an MBA degree would come to the table with an excellent and well-maintained network of contacts in various industries and countries, the result of active immersion in an international environment for the course of their MBA studies. They would add exceptional value to the project from day one, namely because of the practical applicability of all they have learned in their MBA programme. These are the key elements employers need to find in a candidate in order to justify the six-digit salary most MBA grads expect to receive after matriculation.

Businesses and professionals in the classroom

First and foremost, top MBA programmes dedicate time and resources to establishing and maintaining working relationships with business. Though b-schools have been the subject of criticism for an allegedly sporadic collaboration with businesses and for not meeting companies’ real business needs as part of their curricula, there are hundreds of examples to the contrary.

Just one of the many is the University of Edinburgh Business School, which has developed working collaborations with businesses all over the world. The school offers students the opportunity to engage with businesses by hosting business practitioner speakers throughout the year, participate in debates with various CEOs, join an Entrepreneurship Club and work on consultancy assignments as part of the programme. Some of the modules provide students with an opportunity to work with a larger corporation or to work on assignments with start-up and spin-out ventures for clients like Amazon, Barclays Wealth, GE Energy, etc.

Just a little further south, at Manchester Business School (MBS), which has international centres in the USA, Middle East, Hong Kong, China, Singapore and Brazil, students are subjected to a practical, situation-based learning by doing approach, the so-called Manchester Method.  As an MBA student at Manchester, you would undertake a minimum of 900 hours of client-facing consultancy work through the Not-for-Profit Project, UK Consultancy Project and International Business Project. You would compete in an innovative, interactive business simulation exercise in Mergers & Acquisitions and work with a diverse range of local, national and international clients, from not-for-profit organisations to global bluechips.

Practical is the new academic

Perhaps most preciously though, the academic approach within the business programmes is also changing, introducing an increasing number of practitioners among faculty, and not only as guest speakers. Schools appoint professors from business while investing in developing their academic skills. Practitioners not only bring real life experience to the classroom, but also have the ability to link the curriculum to what students will encounter in their organisations post-graduation.

The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business or AACSB, one of the international   accrediting organisations for schools of business, ironically had a requirement that at least 40% of faculty members at accredited schools have a doctorate degree. This failed to acknowledge the fact that some of the business school professors have many years of real work experience, but most stopped their academic careers at Master’s level. The difference between PhD professors and teaching practitioners is that the latter possess a complex combination of theoretical knowledge and practical application and experience, including numerous successes and failures, a wealth of human interaction in a real life business environment, genuine understanding of both business processes and the human drive behind them: exactly what businesses demand from MBAs today. Business practitioners give real value to MBA students by adding a more pragmatic and humble approach, while creating a collaborative learning atmosphere. They encourage students to immediately put theory into practice in real business situations, allowing them to make valuable mistakes early on and fix them in creative, innovative, yet result-driven ways.

Put words into action

Despite these accreditation requirements, the practical element of the MBA programme is highly appreciated, says Robert Reid, Executive Vice President and Chief Accreditation Officer for the AACSB. “You don’t become a world-class athlete in a sport by thinking about how to do it,” says Reid. “You go out and practice it, and over time you get much better at it.”

To ensure their students become real practitioners, b-schools develop their curricula and teaching methods from the standpoint of businesses: how this business knowledge and newly developed soft and hard skills should be put into practice. No doubt the traditional method of lecture teaching still exists, and it probably always will, since it provides valuable and irreplaceable assets to students. Yet, data reported by business schools to Bloomberg Businessweek has showed that there is no lecture teaching at Harvard Business School at all, while the case study teaching method accounts for 80%.  

Get down to the case

The case method plays a significant role in building practical applicability of the knowledge gained in MBA programmes, not only in terms of how intensively it is used, but also as the core instrument to fill the gap between theory and practice. The case method enables students to investigate business theories and apply them in real case scenarios from the past by offering a resolution. Professors who use this teaching method are not expected, unlike in other traditional teaching methods, to offer their personal view of the matter discussed but simply provide explanations, if needed, and encourage students to devise and defend solutions to the issues at hand.

The case method uses decision-forcing cases, a kind of decision game where reliable descriptions and real events are used. Every case has a protagonist faced with the issues that students are asked to solve. As in every decision game, a role play is engaged and some case teachers emphasize this to the point of addressing students using the name and title of the protagonist. Others, like the faculty at Harvard Business School, do not place such emphasis on role play.

Case-study classrooms give a sense of anticipation of the unknown. The professors’ role is to bring as much of the real world as possible into the classroom, by putting students into a hard management situation and forcing them to deal with it in the presence of insufficient information. And, at this point, students are not taught to bring the right solution into the classroom but to have the right questions. This is how this transformational learning changes the way students look at the world.

The right tool for the right job

Each business school chooses its teaching philosophy by drawing upon a mixture of teaching methods such as the case-study method, lectures and discussion, team-based learning experiences, experiential learning and real world exercise opportunities, such as business simulation competitions, real life consultancy projects, venture incubators and internships. Some schools, like Harvard Business School for example, have preferences for some of the teaching methods over others, but most still rely on a mixture of all of the above. This is notably applicable to the diverse group of students business schools have nowadays, and the fact that every person has a different way of learning. Giving students the chance to explore different teaching methods allows them to be more adaptable to real life scenarios.

Some classes, such as statistics and accounting, are more traditionally taught using the lecture and discussion model. This allows professors to be much more time-efficient and cover more topics, but also provides students with the clarity needed for such specific and technical subjects. 

The case method is still the core practical teaching method in MBA programmes. The written assignments that students complete after each module are based on the same foundation. At the same time, written assignments give students the opportunity to make a direct connection between the material taught and the actual issues they were facing at their latest or current organisation. Students are encouraged to find the mechanisms behind a particular business process or decision and apply them directly to their organisations, thus identifying the successful and weak points of the decisions that have been made and, most importantly, propose new solutions while applying their knowledge to solving the issue. It is obvious how employers that encourage and support their managers to pursue MBA degrees will benefit from such an investment.

Real life experience

In addition, b-schools provide students with the opportunity to participate in a variety of experiential learning processes, so as to encourage learning by doing. One of the most common is the business plan competition, where MBA students work in groups to create detailed business plans with complete financial projections, marketing strategies and return-on-investment analyses. Business plans are then judged by entrepreneurs and professors, and the best often receive funding from joint venture capitalists and angel investors. In some cases, students themselves transfer their business plans into reality and provide or find funding independently, either while they are still at b-school or after graduation. Not surprisingly, their partners, colleagues and service providers are often none other than their own MBA classmates who have provided active cooperation and support in the process.   

Real life consultancy projects and internships are also innovative and effective teaching methods. Real life consultancy projects mix teamwork skills with practice for a limited period of time. Students’ adaptability to the team and the organisation are crucial to this type of project. Usually students need to solve issues quickly, faced with many missing pieces of information, so they learn how to work with many unknowns, just like they will in real life.

Some schools have extra expectations of the practical skills acquired by their students in the course of the programme and set a requirement that students undergo a second internship to be granted a diploma.

The practical approach allows managers to understand the changes happening globally and spot entrepreneurial opportunities. Where people usually see decline, MBA holding managers are taught to see areas of growth.

Well-rounded outcome

After so many real cases and project opportunities it is no surprise that MBA degree holders are in demand by employers. Analytical and strategic thinking, the ability to link the pieces of the large business puzzle in various industries, communication skills and stamina to defend your solution, are all the result of spending those eventful two years at business school. MBA holders do not possess finished models for every particular situation - they have obtained a model of how to apply and communicate their business knowledge in any situation, and provide the clarity, business reasoning and leadership guidance to ensure that solutions are followed through, regardless of industry, continent and cultural differences.

The MBA learning process broadens one’s horizons, both in personal and professional terms. The fast and flexible assessment of what is important or not in a particular situation, and the ability to put various complex business skills into practice, give MBA degree holders enough credibility to inspire trust with their business ideas. Moreover, the proven ability to draft real and practical business plans and strategies, to deal with the unknown bearing in mind both past and future challenges, and to think in perspective, are all priceless skills. When combined with deep financial knowledge and strategic and organisational experience, supplemented with leadership and communication abilities, MBA practical teaching programmes turn into irreplaceable incubators for proactive leaders all around the world. 

This article has been produced by Advent Group and featured in the 2015-2016 Access MBA Guide

Featured Schools

Sort by A-Z / Z-A