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Rethinking the MBA: Status Quo Schools Will "Fall by Wayside"

Last week, I spoke with Harvard Business School's Srikant Datar and David A. Garvin, co-authors of the new book Rethinking the MBA: Business Education at a Crossroads, about some of the problems b-schools face. This week, we discuss ways for MBA programs to move forward.

BNET: In what ways do you think MBA curriculums need to change?

Datar: We make recommendations in the book on eight different areas. Let me summarize by saying that we borrow from different leadership models that argue for three different areas that MBA training needs to focus on. The first is the area of knowing: What is it that business schools need to teach students that they need to know? Second is the area of doing: What skills are needed to practice management effectively as a professional? The third area is being, and has to do with values, identity, the purpose that animates thinking by managers.

Our argument in the book is we certainly need to do more with thinking skills by including the expectations of markets and models, but we need to do a lot more rebalancing toward the doing and being skills. It's about rebalancing in order to produce more innovative and principled leaders.
BNET: Can new forms of the MBA such as online, weekend and one-year degrees give students as effective an education as traditional two-year programs?

Garvin: We actually don't spend a whole lot of time in the book analyzing these alternatives. If you go back to the trilogy of knowing, doing and being, my guess would be that they can do a reasonably effective job in the domain of knowledge: communicating frameworks, communicating techniques, teaching strategic analysis and basic economics. They're probably less effective in teaching doing and even less so at teaching being. Those require fairly intense immersions and experiential learning. They require continual exposure to the concepts of those frameworks and tools.

The problem with online is that it's episodic and fragmentary. The same is true with weekend programs. They're particularly strong on knowing. Our guess is they are less likely to be equally effective on the other two dimensions.

BNET: Your book deals with the way that a few institutions have dealt with the challenges facing b-schools. For schools that don't address these challenges and stick with the status quo instead, what are the dangers they face?

Garvin: The first danger is students voting with their feet. There has been a drop off and a hollowing out of the marketplace in the mid-ranking schools. We can imagine that trend accelerating without change. The other is the issue of placements. It's very clear that executives and recruiters are asking for students with a different portfolio of skills. The schools that have changed have moved in the direction of providing that portfolio of skills. Insead very much tries to foster a global mindset. Yale has restructured its curriculum to focus on integrated thinking. Those that don't change will eventually see some significant declines and fall by the wayside.

BNET: Final thoughts?

Garvin: We've presented these ideas to a wide range of audiences -- academic, executive, students -- and we've done it around the world on virtually every continent. These ideas have extraordinary resonance with just about every group we've talked to. People are interested in moving forward. We've gotten very little pushback and a lot of endorsement with these ideas.

Datar: As we say in the book, we are actually quite optimistic. We can see the leading edge of change, we can see a lot of excitement and enthusiasm. We see a spirit of cooperation needed to affect change. There are challenges, but we're excited about the potential and support different institutions will provide in this effort.