In April 2002, the Management Education Task Force of the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), the major accrediting organization of U.S. business schools, issued a report questioning the relevance of business-school curricula in today’s global marketplace. Among the AACSB’s recommendations: Teach “basic management skills, such as communications, interpersonal skills, multicultural skills, negotiations, leadership development, and change management ... and prepare managers for global responsibility.”
Not long after the AACSB report, the popular press picked up on an article by Stanford Graduate School of Business professor Jeffrey Pfeffer published in the inaugural issue of Academy of Management Learning and Education. Professor Pfeffer and coauthor Christina Fong, a doctoral student, argued that, with the exception of perhaps a few top schools, MBA programs provide little of use in the real business world and are especially lacking in on-the-job experience leading and managing others. Professor Pfeffer and Ms. Fong noted: “Without a larger clinical or practice component, it is not clear that business schools ever will impart much lasting knowledge that affects graduates’ performance.”
Although critics writing in such publications as Information Week called the article “inflammatory” and “far out,” our experience leads us to believe that the authors’ conclusions weren’t far out at all. A big gap separates what graduates offer from what most employers need. Many MBA graduates arrive at new jobs unprepared for the often multicultural, multiunit, and politically charged decision making they will be required to handle; in our own firm, we find this forces us to engage in training we believe the business schools should have provided.
Of course, professional-services firms like Booz Allen Hamilton don’t expect MBAs to be fully formed consultants on day one. That’s why new MBA hires at Booz Allen enter an immersion process that lasts several months and includes multiple courses and job assignments during which new hires are apprenticed to seasoned mentors. After this initial immersion period, consultants are expected to participate in training throughout their careers. The curriculum is tailored to their strengths and competencies.
Still, we would prefer it if the highly motivated, able people who arrive with MBAs had stronger skills in writing, public speaking, building and running teams, supervising and delegating, and sharing leadership in ways that motivate and inspire subordinates. Although it’s true that social skills are difficult to teach, curricula can be designed to promote them. Further, we would like more students to arrive with a better grasp of the scientific method and how to apply it — from hypothesis generation through the research and analysis that underlies our profession.
Cause and Effect
We speculate that there are any number of causes for the shortcomings we see in the quality of MBA education. One cause may be that business schools mistakenly defer to students when they’re designing their curricula, reacting to the demands of students who prefer the fun of strategy. That could explain why MBA programs do not pay enough attention to the nuts and bolts of problem solving and other competencies that employers demand. In particular, students are not taught to pose the question “why” and to keep asking why until they cannot ask it anymore, a significant element of effective problem solving.
It’s not surprising that the schools are so student-centric; students are extremely influential in determining business-school reputations. One business professor even told us that students will always be business schools’ No. 1 customer; the survey rankings and schools’ reputations are driven by students, and schools depend heavily on their alumni for money.
The consequence is that companies don’t feel they can get the well-rounded top talent they’re looking for from business schools. Over the last decade, most consulting firms (including ours) have shifted a portion of their hiring away from MBA programs. In part, this is because the total cost of hiring and training an MBA is very high. For companies like ours, which underwrite a portion of promising candidates’ education, the cost to acquire MBA talent is roughly 10 times that of acquiring talent in the open market.