A while ago, I participated in a panel on the future of the MBA. Here is a summary of my arguments about flexibility, specialized programs, and the power of technologically networked research faculty.
Interviewer: The MBA is in a significant crisis. You study markets as social systems and you are also working in an MBA school. What's your theory?
I look at market creation as a sociological network building process that requires the harmonization of multiple stakeholders. And that's where I see many schools these days already falling short - making the mistake of honing in too quickly on one group of stakeholders.
You probably think I am talking about the student now. But I am actually referring to the media. Industry wants to hire the best managers in order to stay competitive. Students, in turn, want to acquire the most competitive set of skills. But listening too much to what the media defines as "the best" and "the most competitive" on behalf of industry and students, that's where the problem has started historically.
It's like allowing one stakeholder group to redefine the entire game. And in the process that game has invariably become theirs. That's, in essence, how the Financial Times and other business media players came to own the MBA.
Interviewer: How does this ownership manifest concretely?
There are many examples. Consider, as a case in point, how many schools have come to equate "flexibility" with specialized programs. By that I mean programs and specializations that are not so much based on concrete, measurable industry needs and longstanding industry relationships but those that are branded almost entirely through the lens of a particular business journalistic discourse.
The former is more durable than the latter but it requires proper translation. The latter often declares itself to be the representation of an actual industry need although it really isn't. And then you get these many different specializations and specialized X MBAs whereby X stands for the latest media trend. But one thing that I've learned in actively dialoguing with industry and the media as a researcher is that, only because a CEO emphasizes the importance of trend X in interviews, his or her company may not necessarily need X MBAs.
Second, these programs and specializations can very well provide short-term enrolment boost but only until the media trend they're based upon becomes stale. The even bigger problem is on the output side where the myth - via the program - creates the graduate. Such a graduate who enters the market will not be tailored enough to actual industry needs but more to the parameters of the second-last media trope. Almost by definition, the resulting graduate can only be less successful than a graduate of a program that was more firmly rooted in concrete industry need.
Interviewer: So how should MBA schools approach the media?
I think it is important that the school sets the media's agenda, not the other way around. Business schools are matchmakers between industry, students, the media, and some other stakeholders such as policy makers and society at large. And while the specialized program approach has worked for many schools, what has gotten them here may not necessarily take them there, so to speak.
Recruiters often bemoan the MBA price tag and argue in favor of hiring undergrads and shaping them on their own. That's a very concerning statement. It is equally concerning to see students get really frustrated about their difficulty on the market after having paid so much money for their education.
This leads to the third step. When these students' stories and job market experiences become data points to the next MBA ranking, schools often pay a high price. And in their attempts to boost enrolment, devising the next layer of programs and specializations seems like the most intuitive thing to do. And then the cycle starts all over again.
Interviewer: Which schools prevail in such a scenario?
Networked research schools that understand that real flexibility comes from cutting-edge research faculty firmly invested in technological networks. Such schools almost look a bit like a Mandelbrot fractal. Their faculty members act like business schools inside a business school - a key to helping make these matches through their unique understanding of markets and industry needs, and to setting the research, the business, and the media agendas through their own research, not the other way around.
But consider what often happens to researchers these days. In their insatiable need for ever-new programs and specializations, schools often degrade their best and brightest researchers to curriculum development machines.
Designing a powerful elective MBA course that uses research to build strong bridges between students' career goals and concrete industry needs and then operating this enterprise through multiple channels seems like a very good idea. In my case, that would be Customer Experience Design. But when a school asks you to demonstrate your value by creating and managing entire programs and specializations, often only remotely related to your own research expertise, it may be time for a move.
Interviewer: Thank you for your insights!
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