Reinventing the MBA

B-schools are overhauling curriculum to turn out more innovative, socially responsible leaders.

Lindsey Olier Barnes had just arrived in Bangalore, India for a monthlong internship at IT giant Infosys when she encountered one of the real-world problems she'd heard so much about back at Stanford University's Graduate School of Business. The Infosys group to which she was assigned had been tasked with getting managers to focus on new products as well as the company's traditional niche, providing cost-cutting solutions to clients. The move was out of the comfort zone for many managers, and a constant complaint of her colleagues in the group was, "They won't listen."
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So Barnes took a page from her Leadership Labs course. She made a point of hearing out the managers before launching into her own spiel, so she could "address the root causes of their concerns." Suddenly they seemed more receptive and started asking questions about the new strategy. By letting them voice their worries about what the change could mean for them and their employees, Barnes says, she earned their trust. She had learned that "people don't care about how much you know until they know how much you care."

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Barnes's communication coup is exactly the kind of outcome business educators have in mind as they rethink M.B.A. programs to de-emphasize traditional discipline-based courses like marketing and finance in favor of a focus on leadership skills, innovation, social responsibility, and a global perspective. A handful of elite institutions, including the Yale School of Management, Stanford, and, most recently, the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, have led the charge with radical curriculum overhauls.

But John Fernandes, president and CEO of AACSB International-The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, which accredits b-schools, estimates that upwards of 75 percent of schools have made some changes to their curricula. "In many instances, you are seeing them being destroyed and rebuilt," he says. The capacity of the leaders "that society expects today is so demanding and so broad that everyone is rushing to meet those needs."

Yale rolled out its new curriculum in 2006, after a yearlong review in which administrators found a widening disconnect between M.B.A. programs and the business world. The school eliminated traditional coursework in favor of interdisciplinary classes focused on the "organizational perspectives" of different parties. So, for example, instead of taking a finance class, students take courses on the investor and the customer and learn about the fundamentals of finance in each class from those different perspectives. Economics is similarly taught from various viewpoints, including those of competitors, the state and society, and operations.

The old case study method of instruction has been revisited, too. Rather than consider pre-digested summaries of company situations, students tackle "raw cases" packed with original data. Instead of being presented with an income statement, for example, they must mine the considerably bulkier annual filing to the Securities and Exchange Commission for data. The raw cases "push us to understand," says second-year Yale student Jason Hill. "They purposely put in more material than you could ever look at, but you have to learn where to look."

Another buzz phrase in b-school circles these days is "leadership development." It's a key component of the M.B.A. programs deemed most successful by David Garvin, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School and coauthor of Rethinking the MBA: Business Education at a Crossroads. The ability to guide others and give staff members critical feedback must be developed, Garvin argues, through exercises and experiences that develop self-awareness and an appreciation of how coworkers affect one another. Stanford similarly stresses what Dean Garth Saloner calls three leadership capabilities: critical analytical thinking; innovative thinking; and personal leadership.

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