Second, business schools should introduce and emphasize courses that offer the basic skills and tools needed in problem solving. These include data gathering, data analysis, and innovative problem-solving methodologies and tools, such as systems thinking and the Venn diagram. MBA graduates often stop short of getting to a problem’s root causes because they define those causes in the same way they were defined in a case study they covered in school.
Third, more and better grounding in theory — theories of economics, measurement, governance, psychology, human behavior, and leadership — would help students go beyond case studies to analyze problems and craft solutions in situations they have never before encountered. If students learn the nitty-gritty of microeconomics, for example, they may be more prepared, say, to develop a winning pricing strategy. If they master theories of human behavior, they may be more prepared to suggest solutions to team or unit motivational problems. By delving deeply into theory, the graduates can also distinguish themselves with specialized knowledge that appeals to employers.
Fourth, schools should make changes in their curricula so that students can integrate their learning and apply multiple disciplines on the job. Instead, students are usually forced to learn about each of the fundamental business disciplines (such as finance, strategy, operations, and marketing) in a silo-like fashion.
MIT’s Sloan School’s Leaders for Manufacturing program is an example of a curriculum that integrates subjects ranging from manufacturing processes and operations management to leadership and change management, and that emphasizes on-the-job and classroom training. The Leaders for Manufacturing program runs two tracks of learning at the same time, one covering traditional classroom subjects and the other covering “leadership and integrative” activities outside the classroom. The nonclassroom track includes leadership seminars, 15 plant tours each year, and a thesis. In the second year, each student spends six and a half months as an intern at one of 20 partner companies. In past internships, students have joined a Ford vehicle launch team, deployed a John Deere production system, and implemented lean manufacturing at United Technologies.
Fifth, schools should encourage students to take full advantage of courses outside the traditional core curriculum. At present, most students don’t appear to be diversifying their course load. Perhaps this accounts for the lack of differentiation we see among the graduates we interview. Schools offer plenty of electives — 88 at Harvard, 143 at the University of Chicago, more than 200 at Wharton. But the MBAs we talk to aren’t taking these classes. Instead, most are sticking to finance, operations, and strategy. Graduates aiming at jobs in management consulting, for example, would do well to explore — even to the Ph.D. level — such subjects as microeconomics, competitive dynamics, and statistics in addition to their broader-based management training.
We also find that graduates too infrequently have in-depth knowledge of specific industries, the government, or global nongovernmental organizations. This creates a tremendous void, given the demand in business for expertise in such topics as global markets, economic alliances, and government privatizations. Our clients increasingly thirst for help in these areas.
Sixth, and perhaps most critically, schools should commit themselves to re-creating differentiation in their curricula. Although it may be too risky for a school today to completely leave the mainstream, MBA programs can still allow students to concentrate on an industry. For example, schools can offer students who want to go into consulting or investment banking a tailored course of study that specifically prepares them for these fields, not just by offering electives, but by creating a discrete set of courses and experiences.
We believe these six recommendations are an essential starting point for reform. Schools should also include a “practicum” approach in which a major portion of a student’s credits are attached to supervised real work in his or her area of concentration. This is different from an internship, which is typically not under direct supervision of the business school.