Fighting Back Against the MBA Backlash: Curriculum Crisis

Last Updated Oct 26, 2007 6:50 PM EDT

In the past few posts, we've been discussing BNET's latest feature package "What's That MBA Really Worth?" We're currently focusing on Geoffrey James' article, "Five Hard Truths About the MBA," which lists some of the top criticisms of the MBA degree path, and we're taking a closer look at the different criticisms.

#2: The training is too theoretical

Depending on the MBA program, this one can be hard to argue too. A little theory is necessary, but too much is usually a waste.

Then again, business schools aren't the only ones guilty of this criticism by any stretch. There's a reason you start out in entry-level positions when you're right out of college: Your degree brought you a nice foundation, but there's still a lot to learn.

This point also highlights why MBAs are best paired with work experience. In my case, after nine years, I've got the experience, but I'm often missing the foundation.

Counteract this disadvantage by looking for schools that have programs that extend beyond theory. In fact, that was a main reason I chose the journalism school I attended: Whereas other schools taught a lot of theory, my school believed in on-the-job training. I was a reporter, a copy editor, an assistant managing editor -- all for credit hours instead of cash. Look for a business school that can offer a similar experience.

#3: The people skills needed to be a manager can't be taught in the business school environment

I couldn't agree more. But I would also argue that no one can teach people skills. You amass them by experience, by observation, and by making mistakes -- not by reading a book and passing an exam.

Skillful managers are good at what they do because of experience and luck. I equate management skills to writing or drawing skills: You can be taught the basics, but you either have a feel for it, or you don't. People who don't might be adequate managers, but they won't have the same connection as the ones with the natural inclination for it.

On the flip side of this criticism is society's expectation that someone with an MBA automatically knows how to manage -- wrong. But that's a harder assumption to refute since those vying for management jobs don't want to admit they don't know how to manage.

How do you offset this criticism? First of all, don't expect that an MBA will magically instill you with management skills -- you've got to earn them like everybody else. If you don't have the opportunity at work, look to extracurricular activities. Coaching a sports team or chairing a committee at church or a community center can help you develop some of the people skills you'll need for managing a staff.

What do you think? Is it possible to learn people skills? Can you learn to manage people in the classroom? And, how else can you counteract these criticisms?