The authors acknowledge that the most effective ways to teach many of the topics they recommend are still not well understood; at a minimum, MBA students require teaching methods very different from those used in business schools today. Nonetheless, both the authors and the people they interview appear sanguine about the ability of business schools to deliver on these needs. Indeed, the new offerings from the six leading institutions the authors examine are impressive on paper: There are integrative global management courses, overseas campuses and exchange programs, experiential programs, and leadership laboratories, as well as integrated curricula and courses in integrative thinking.
The language is right, but as the unmet needs are matched with their corresponding solutions, one becomes concerned that these may be what longtime Harvard Business School professor Fritz Roethlisberger used to call verbal wands — fine phrases that may not be accompanied by the behavioral changes necessary to deliver on their promises. Rewriting the marketing brochures of business schools is easy enough, but how much change can one really make in the schools themselves, and over what time frame?
The typical business school is a siloed fortress, most of whose professors and deans prefer a fragmented, discipline-based curriculum because it gives them maximum freedom to pursue their own research interests. It’s why many of them were attracted to the institution in the first place and how they have earned tenure. Changing their incentive schemes will not be easy. How realistic is it to expect such “disciplinarians” to deliver the integrated experiences designed to promote creativity and innovation that the authors describe? Team teaching is probably one of the keys to providing such experiences, but the authors acknowledge that its implementation has proved very difficult, and that the deans surveyed were almost all against it. Yet leading firms in the private sector mastered effective teamwork across the functional silos decades ago. If the business schools cannot handle this, can they really change? And if they cannot change, what is to be done about management education?
To answer that question, Rethinking the MBA should probably be read as part of a trilogy with two other books: the magisterial From Higher Aims to Hired Hands, and Matthew Stewart’s acerbic critique of management philosophy, The Management Myth: Why the Experts Keep Getting It Wrong (W.W. Norton, 2009). (See “The Clay Feet of Management Science,” by David K. Hurst, s+b, Spring 2010.) Readers of these three books might well conclude that the true objectives of management education are indistinguishable from those of the liberal arts: to provide an interdisciplinary education in literacy, numeracy, and an understanding of people, so that one can marshal all these competencies in the service of creating and running sustainable institutions.
Ironically, a model for this kind of education already exists outside business schools: It appeared in the form of politics, philosophy, and economics programs pioneered as the “modern greats” in England in the 1920s to train members of the civil service. Perhaps the reduced role of the business school might be to supervise students’ trajectories through the entire university, organize the appropriate experiences, and teach only the technical finance and operations subject matter not available elsewhere. The bulk of the faculty could return to their true homes in other parts of the academy (economics, sociology, engineering, psychology), and stop duplicating the liberal arts and sciences under the guise of an MBA. Instead, the teaching of business would be integrated with the general arts and sciences, under the assumption that everyone who learned to be a generally capable individual would need to apply this knowledge to making a living.