MBAs Do MBAs Deliver? More than many graduates expect

Too much time… too much money… no longer relevant… glut of graduates! It seems there’s always bundle of criticism being hurled at the Master of Business Administration – or, as the cynics say, Master of B-all – degree.

Ken Lilley is an MBA student who can’t understand why it gets so much stick. He’s delighted with the return he’s had on his investment, though he’s probably tad atypical.

At 44, Lilley had made it to the top of the management tree (“not big tree”, he says modestly) when radical downsize in his company operations provided both the impetus and opportunity for some personal up-skilling. That was in 2001.

Two years on and his ROI from Massey’s MBA programme could be called above average. For starters, it led to partnership with fellow student Karl Qin which resulted in their securing $24-million contract with Chinese whitewear company Haier (see p56).

That aside, Lilley thinks you’d be hard put not to learn something useful from the three-weekly stints in classroom with 20 to 30 intelligent people, both from course content and peer interaction. “It helps you focus on the way you are as an individual in business… it defines your character in business. Sure there are times when you’re only discovering flash words for things you already do but mostly that isn’t the case. In general, you learn something from everything you do in an MBA.”

That sense of personal growth and development is shared by number of recent graduates and others still ploughing gamely through hefty course commitments that have prompted some to christen the degree the “marriage break-up association”.

Lilley is not alone in finding that the returns are readily measurable.

Nicki Eskau worked in health funding for the Government when she enrolled in Canterbury’s MBA programme. She wanted to learn about best practice in business and management. Soon after graduating last year, she was made general manager of two Christchurch companies, one tourist related and the other in professional development.

She credits the course with giving wings to her career desires because it provided the skills, credibility and personal confidence to make use of them. “An MBA gives you good foundation in business, good network of business contacts, lot of self confidence, self belief and thirst for learning. The whole thing is an incredible experience.”

Eskau came to the course with no previous university experience and admits to being bit of rarity, even among her peers, in not finding any of the course work slog. “I just loved the whole thing.”

Others, however, do find the coursework hard going. At least one student interviewed for this article joined the ranks of the newly divorced before finishing his degree. But none had any regrets about taking it on nor did they have any doubts about its benefits.

So, what is all the MBA flak about?

One of the most high-profile sources of criticism is man who, despite his own scepticism of the breed, has become universal management guru. Canadian University professor, Henry Mintzberg, has written extensively about management in action as opposed to management in theory. He professes little patience with management fads, and is more in favour of learning by reflection than by analysis.

MBA programmes claim to be creating managers when they’re not, he complains. “The MBA is really about business which would be fine except that people leave these programmes thinking they’ve been trained to do management. I think every MBA should have skull and crossbones stamped on their forehead and underneath should be written: ‘not prepared to manage’.”

Mintzberg tells those aspiring to manage well to avoid the MBA track and pick an industry to fall in love with, learn all its nuances, and get deeply involved.

His beliefs around management training are incorporated in programme that was almost christened the anti-MBA. Directed at senior managers, the International Masters in Practicing Management is run jointly through universities in India, Japan, France, and the UK as well Canada’s McGill University where Mintzberg holds his professorship.

Launched in 1996, the IMPM eschews formulaic approach in favour of teaching people to tolerate ambiguity and become more reflective. This programme’s success and Mintzberg’s mana (he easily makes the “top 50” list of management thinkers) mean many of his views have been incorporated into mainstream management education including, ironically, traditional MBAs.

Mintzberg’s doubts around the value of an MBA were more recently reflected by Stanford University professor Jeffrey Pfeffer, who co-authored an article (published in the Academy of Management Learning & Education, September 2002) that said there is “little evidence that mastery of knowledge acquired in business schools enhances people’s careers or that even attaining the MBA has much effect on graduate salaries or career attainment”. This is cue for pointing out that one of America’s richest corporate bosses, Bill Gates, doesn’t have an MBA though the chap who holds the country’s top administrative job, George Bush, does.

Adding to all this high-profile doubt around MBAs is the increasing time pressure of fast-paced business environment. Not only is there less time for long-term learning commitment such as the MBA but today’s learning can quickly become obsolete.

Business schools are responding by providing range of tailored short courses, trend that currently supplements more traditional MBA courses but could eventually replace them, according to recent article in Australia’s Business Review Weekly (February 2003).

Regena Mitchell, director of the Otago Executive MBA programme, dis-agrees. Short courses, she says, have their uses but they don’t effect any real change either for individual participants or their companies. That takes more time, greater self-understanding and more consistent application to all aspects of business operation. “The problem with short courses is that participants may get excited by what they’ve learned and want to change something in their company but the company’s culture hasn’t changed. Unless they understand how to change themselves, their behaviour, how they respond to others… then they’re not going to be able to change the business.”

Personal growth, self-knowledge and the ability to function as part of team are all part of the Otago Executive MBA process and their consistent application throughout each course module effects genuine change, says Mitchell. “By the time you’ve finished, it’s like you have the whole company in your hand.”

That sort of holistic understanding both of how the parts of company interconnect and how individuals interact within them is also highlighted by the director of Canterbury’s MBA programme, Suzanne Worrall. She points out that most New Zealand managers run small-to-medium sized enterprises (SMEs) and need to be business generalists rather than functional specialists. That’s what MBAs deliver. “Experience in one area is complemented by wider understanding of how the whole organisation works. So they have depth, breadth and sense of interconnectivity. You can’t move one lever such as marketing without considering the implications it has on the rest of the business.”

Canterbury emphasises “character”, not certificates of accomplishment, as the most important aspect of an MBA. That, says Worrall, is the core around which knowledge and skills are built. “Business is not just about content but about relationships, working with others to achieve result. Peer influence and persuasion is constant aspect of the coursework. We emphasise process more than anything else. Students can go back to textbooks or assignments later but what they come out with is confidence based both on knowledge and interpersonal communications. They know more about themselves.”

Those who’ve done all their learning in the classroom cop most of the management education flac

Visited 9 times, 1 visit(s) today

A focus on culture

Rabobank’s 520-plus New Zealand employees work from 27 locations – places like Ashburton, Pukekohe and Feilding and from a purpose-built head office in Hamilton. Its employees are proud of the

Read More »
Close Search Window