It’s time to reinvent the MBA

Are MBA programs still viable? Are their graduates still valued by employers?

Despite these questions, demand for MBA programs is growing: 84 per cent of companies worldwide plan to add new MBAs to their work force in 2015 – up from 74 per cent in 2014 and 62 per cent five years ago, according to a global survey of employers published by the U.S.-based Graduate Management Admission Council. The MBA is hardly dying, and certainly far from dead.

But it needs an overhaul.

When MBA programs originated in the United States in the early 20th century, the country had industrialized and companies wanted more scientific approaches to management. Today, most MBA programs – about 10,000 and growing – still use pedagogical approaches designed to legitimize management as a science, lecturing in classrooms and teaching cases on topics derived from disciplinary silos. This is true of even the most established and prestigious MBA programs.

The boom of new programs around the world, and increasing competition for the brightest students, ought to spur innovation in curricula. The complex challenges confronting contemporary society, such as addressing climate change, reducing inequality and ensuring the sustainability of health systems, demand it.

As leaders of organizations who today employ MBAs around the world, and MBA graduates ourselves, we have insights into what this innovation should look like to ensure MBA programs fulfill their responsibility to prepare leaders able to meet these challenges and have positive impacts on their organizations, communities and society more broadly. At a recent conference celebrating 50 years of the MBA at McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management in Montreal, we listened to and learned from more than 200 successful MBA alumni, professors and students from around the world in order to outline a vision for what the MBA of the future should look like. From our reflection and discussions emerged several overarching themes that, we believe, should guide the reinvention of management education.

First, as renowned scholar Henry Mintzberg reiterated, we must begin by acknowledging that management is not a science. It is a practice, where art, science and craft combine. We need to provide MBA students with an understanding of how they can reason in different modes and draw on real-life experiences to equip them better to tap into the power of intuition, creativity and design thinking. While technical skills and scientific approaches within management disciplines are essential, we believe that the practical application of management knowledge, as well as a profound appreciation of its art and craft aspects, should be enhanced in MBA programs.

A more integrated form of education is a great way to do this. Integrated management teaches students to appreciate the innovative potential of multiple perspectives on value as well as how to draw upon these perspectives to generate creative, new solutions. This is done by breaking down the boundaries separating traditional silo approaches to teaching, research and problem-solving. As leaders of organizations in an increasingly complex and interconnected world awash in an infinite sea of data, helping future leaders to understand what is available to them, how to make sense of it, and how to integrate all of this information into knowledge and wisdom in order to make better, more creative decisions is of paramount importance.

We know from experience how hard it can be to break down boundaries within our own organizations. It can be messy. But it’s worth it, and frankly, necessary to remain globally competitive. Within programs such as the MBA, we have a unique opportunity to contribute to the intellectual and moral development of tomorrow’s leaders. Let’s teach students how to think more reflexively and holistically. Show them the advantages of leveraging the diversity of views held by legitimate stakeholders. Encourage them to embrace their capacity for synthesis and judgment. Develop within them the ability to collaborate despite differences.

To do so we will still need to provide them with discipline-based knowledge, but it also means we must provide them with more hands-on projects, internships, practicums, service learning opportunities and live cases. MBA students need to confront the reality that tackling real-world problems requires knowledge sharing across more than one subject matter, and across sectors. Let’s start by giving them opportunities to apply their knowledge and take action in real-time, exposing them to the complex decisions we face every day, before they come out of their program. Not only will the students benefit, but our organizations and communities will as well.

Seymour Schulich, successful entrepreneur, philanthropist and a member of McGill’s first MBA graduating class in 1965, summed it up, “The real world is an expensive place to get a management education. Your MBA will be the best and the cheapest way of reducing your losses. The more knowledge and skills you can acquire now, the more you will avoid costly mistakes later.” The complex challenges confronting managers in contemporary society demand innovations in management education. But we have never had more opportunities – from the likes of technological advances, science and global crowd sourcing – to tackle these challenges. As business leaders and MBA graduates, we have a duty to contribute to reinventing the MBA such that it better prepares MBA graduates to meet these challenges and to have an enduring and positive impact.

Let’s be part of reinventing the MBA.

With contributions from: Alain Bellemare (president of Bombardier), Tullio Cedraschi (president of CN Investment Division), Bertrand Cesvet (executive chairman and senior partner of Sid Lee), Darren Entwistle (executive chair of Telus), Lili de Grandpré (managing director of CenCEO Consulting), Marie-Joseé Desrochers (artistic department director of Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal), Rita-Rose Gagné (executive vice-president of Growth Markets at Ivanhoé Cambridge), Dave Hackett (executive producer of Hakuhodo Media Partners in Tokyo), Inez Jabalpurwala (president of Brain Canada Foundation), Hubert T. Lacroix (president of CBC/Radio-Canada), Eduardo Mandri (president of Tuango), François Moscovici (partner and director of White Water Group), Luc Pinard (executive vice-president of corporate performance and knowledge management at CGI Group), Samer Saab (chief executive officer of eXplorance), Seymour Schulich (entrepreneur, philanthropist, author), Alexander Toeldte (chairman of Jitasa), Bill Webb (chief investment officer of Gluskin Sheff) and Renée Yardley (vice-president sales and marketing of Tembec).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *