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 / Fall 2003 / Issue 32(originally published by Booz & Company)


What Business Needs from Business Schools

Another cause of the problems with MBA education is the increasing similarity of business-school programs. At one time, if an employer wanted great general managers, it drew from Harvard. If it wanted great quantitative analysts, it drew from Wharton or the University of Chicago. If it wanted great technologists, it drew from Stanford. But now the graduates from all these programs resemble one another. We surmise that this, too, stems from the rankings. As schools try to tailor their programs to move higher on the Business Week list, programs become more and more generic and less and less impressive in any one area.

Convergence helps the schools compete, apples to apples, in the rankings, but it doesn’t give their graduates advantages when they’re competing for jobs. Consulting firms, for example, are not looking for one-size-fits-all MBAs. Students going into consulting, those going to Wall Street, and those going to the finance department of an automotive company all need different skills. By training all students identically, MBA programs don’t sufficiently prepare students who have already chosen a specific career path.

Six Principles for MBA Program Reform

  1. Require more courses in the “people skills” that are vital to managing effectively.
  2. Emphasize the basic skills and tools needed for problem solving.
  3. Provide strong grounding in theories of economics, measurement, governance, psychology, human behavior, and leadership.
  4. Design curricula so that students can learn — by doing — to apply multiple disciplines on the job.
  5. Encourage students to take electives outside the traditional core curriculum.
  6. Create differentiated curricula and allow students to concentrate in specific industries.

Six Reforms
Students, schools, and businesses — as well as governments and the general public — would be better served if graduate business schools began to implement change in six areas.

First, business schools should require more courses in communication, leadership, human resources, psychology, and other fields that provide graduates with skills vital to effectively managing people and team-driven organizations. We believe business schools should require at least two of every 10 core courses to focus on such subjects; currently, these courses are often electives. In the top 10 U.S. business schools, only half require at least two courses on human or organizational relations and management. At Harvard, of 11 required courses, only one (Leadership) focuses on managing people. At Northwestern’s Kellogg, it is one of nine.

On top of regular classroom lectures, reading, and paper writing, schools should require more collaborative projects that emphasize the development of people skills. Projects can be for an individual or a group, but typically they emphasize applied learning that forces students to question, think deeply, weigh alternatives, and create. Project work also involves more management skills — listening, influencing, judging, and selling.

Business schools often fail to guide students to balance competition with cooperation. Competition in the classroom raises the profile of the brightest students, but during many types of business engagements, competition backfires. Successful people know how to collaborate — to listen to customers and cooperate with peers to come up with creative, defensible solutions. Many schools have adopted team-based projects to mimic on-the-job situations. We caution, however, that a few team-based projects won’t instill collaborative skills if professors still reward head-to-head competition in the classroom.

We particularly like the idea of the University of Chicago’s LEAD course, a mandatory one-year experiential leadership course for first-year students. Using role playing and other techniques, LEAD develops expertise in negotiation, organizational development, interpersonal communication, and leadership. In one three-day seminar, students give an “elevator speech” and then a “pitch.” Professors videotape presentations to give detailed feedback. In another module, students learn team dynamics after having taken the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test to learn their psychological type. Second-year students serve as teachers and mentors in the course, which reinforces what is learned in the first year. Since the course runs in tandem with more conventional course work, students have opportunities to practice their new leadership skills while engaging in the regular curriculum.

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  1. Paul O. Gaddis, “Business Schools: Fighting the Enemy Within,” s+b, Fourth Quarter 2000; Click here.
  2. Mark A. Kretovics, “Assessing the MBA: What Do Our Students Learn?” The Journal of Management Development,Volume 18, Issue 2, 1999
  3. Jeffrey Pfeffer and Christina T. Fong, “The End of Business Schools? Less Success Than Meets the Eye,” Academy of Management Learning and Education, Volume 1, Issue 1, 2002
  4. Stephani Richards-Wilson, “Changing the Way MBA Programs Do Business – Lead or Languish,” Journal of Education for Business, May/June 2002
  5. Anne Sigismund Huff (ed.), “Citigroup’s John Reed and Stanford’s James March on Management Research and Practice,” Academy of Management Executive, Volume 14, Issue 1, 2000
  6. Stuart Crainer and Des Dearlove, Gravy Training: Inside the Business of Business Schools (Jossey-Bass, 1999)
  7. Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, Management Education at Risk: A Report from the Management Education Task Force, April 2002; Click here.
  8. COMPAS and the Financial Post, “MBAs and General Master’s Tied for Performance: General Master’s Outperform MBAs in Hard Work, Sectoral Knowledge, and Communications Ability,” September 23, 2002; Click here.
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