Wednesday, May 11, 2011

48/100: Interrogating the MBA

I am doing some work on what quality means in the context of our MBA programme, and the discussion is gradually pulling me to an uncharted territory. My initial ideas were, if I can claim, simple: I thought it meant keeping promises, delivering what was said in the prospectus. This was the textbook definition of quality as I understood it. However, it took me only a few conversations with students and tutors to see how differently each of these promises were understood, and how culturally specific some of the things I assumed we have said were. Besides, the enquiry opened up a whole new discussion about the content of the MBA programme, its objectives and what it must achieve in the end to be valuable.

My starting point was the Benchmark statements for a Business and Management Masters as provided by the Quality Assurance Agency of UK. (Can be accessed here) My understanding was that the MBA should be built around General Management, and ideally avoid narrow subject specialisms. The QAA seems to have decided that subject specialisms should be best left to Professional Bodies or M Sc type of degrees. While a sectoral focus was welcome, the MBA programme was to build on a candidate's prior professional knowledge and enhance his/her decision making abilities through analysis, effective use of knowledge and interacting with people and the like. The QAA benchmark statement is indeed a very useful read, and sets things in perspective.

This is a sort of an eye-opener too. While talking to students, it seems that they are mostly enthralled with subject area specializations. People I spoke to wanted to have an MBA in Finance, rather than a 'general' MBA. The tutors I spoke to thought that the goal of the MBA should be to make people employable, notwithstanding the fact that MBA is meant to be a qualification for people with professional experience, and thought specialisms and greater subject focus will indeed enhance the marketability of the graduates. In fact, I realized that since we offered a General MBA, and since some candidates were keen to get a subject area specialism, some of the Admission Officers were advising them to do their dissertation in the preferred area. Further, my inquiry made me understand that such preferences were very strong, and in fact the Academic department allocated dissertation supervisors along the subject area specialisms as well.

So, if MBA is about integrative thinking about management, that message is somewhat lost. This is more pervasive than the immediate area of my concern - the Business School under consideration - and it is common among many MBA programmes I looked at since. In fact, I noticed that Henry Mintzberg makes this point in his Managers, Not MBAs : That the message of MBA as a General Management programme is lost in the domination of functional specialisms, and what we get is an IKEA model of management, where parts of management are supplied by the Business Schools and the students were supposed to assemble them, without any instruction or an idea how the finished product should look like.

This gives me a starting point of looking at the issue of quality in the context of the MBA programme. It seems to be more about providing the students an overarching framework to integrate their functional knowledge of management. I have, in the past, grappled with the problem of our course becoming too training-like: In fact, my opening statement for the course on Entrepreneurship is to be that it is not about telling the students how to be an entrepreneur, but think critically what entrepreneurs do. And, I can see why it is easy to lose the message: MBA is a course at the sharp end of vocationalization, where 'employability' seems to have usurped all other legitimate learning objectives. And, this is possibly the reason for the problem of the well-educated manager: There is little time or scope to explore why one needs to manage at all, and what could be the goal of decision making when decisions are made. A simplistic assumption that managers are expected to enhance 'shareholder value', without thinking how this value may be defined, is the recipe that landed us in the current disaster. It is also easy to see why the understanding of business as a social organization is so out of fashion and why it is such a cultural challenge to establish such a view.

More battles at hand for me then, but I am glad that I embarked on this inquiry, which allowed me a fresh perspective.

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