Professional Development: Mastering the future

After years of niggling reports and considerable ear-bashing from business on what they want from MBA graduates, many of our universities are slowly changing their programmes, emphasis and approach. big note of caution, however: such complex academic programmes don’t spin on dime. When it comes to making large-scale directional changes, think cruise liner rather than fizz boat.
Natalie Stevens makes the telling comment that an MBA is transformational “because it changes the way an individual is capable of contributing in an organisation”.
As Victoria University Wellington’s director MBA, IMBA, Stevens deals with cohorts of 50 MBA students at time as they work their way through the university’s demanding MBA programme.
For students, tenacity is key, she says. Aspiring students should not only recognise what strengths they bring to the programme but they must be willing to learn from others and help develop their fellow students.
This emphasis on contribution rather than personal gain is key insight into the evolving face of MBAs. Rather than mechanism for high-thrusters to claw their way up the corporate ladder, MBAs are increasingly playing more nuanced role as contributing planks in bid to build more interconnected world.
Pete Cammock, Canterbury University’s director of MBA programmes, says concerns about MBA programmes were raised at conference last year with delegates questioning whether programmes did enough to foster ethical, responsible, leadership practice.
“If you look at the global financial crisis and some of the dodgy behaviour before and during that, number of key people had MBAs: many of them from Ivy League US universities.
“So the question is asked, not unreasonably, what went wrong? Some of those programmes have very strong emphasis on the rational skills of management and on advancing people’s careers as rapidly as possible.
“In New Zealand, and in our programme in particular, we’re very concerned about the development of leaders who are going to be responsible in their practice and who want to make contribution.”
Cammock’s comments chime with number of other MBA experts who cite raft of new programmes introduced to better reflect today’s business needs.
Dr Peter Sun, Waikato Management School’s associate dean, enterprise, says his school does “mini-review” of its MBA programme every year and an extensive analysis of its courses every three or four years. The next big look-see is due to start this month.
While the annual mini-review may not change course content, it alters how the university contextualises it to the situation, says Sun.
“We have developed more relevant case studies on leadership changes in the light of the GFC, for example. Maybe no longer would big-man leadership style be relevant. We are now looking at leaders who are more authentic and caring.
“We are very mindful of the financial crisis and the new dynamism that we see in this environment. So we have divided the programme into two parts. The first centres around developing in the students broad-based competencies and showing the interlinks between them. In fast-changing environment, students need to look at the world from more systemic, rather than functional, perspective.
“In part two we drill down into leadership to discover the ‘authentic you’ and see how each student can relate to others.”
Wayne Dreyer, associate dean, postgraduate, in the Faculty of Business, Manukau Institute of Technology, pulls no punches in his criticism of many MBA programmes. He voices concerns that tomorrow’s managers will face situations that we can’t even envisage today and that our country’s MBA programmes do not equip students with an appropriate skill set.
He points to an academic world that still pays homage to the models and theories of Michael Porter, Henry Mintzberg, Abraham Maslow, and Raymond Miles and Charles Snow.
“All these models were predicated on western capitalist models. The system is now starting to fail us but we’re still teaching this stuff… We have propensity to predict, and teach for, the future with glance over our backs.”
There is, he says, growing body of evidence that suggests that studying economics and business encourages self-interested behaviour. Although an emphasis on ethics is now “coming back into favour”, Dreyer says he has tracked its decline in the past 14 years.
In Dreyer’s view, an MBA should enable executives to “think critically, analyse and lead in workplace situation”. He’d like to see more emphasis on sustainability, corporate governance, leadership and leadership models. He believes course deliverers should get students to reflect more on their behaviour: something which, he says, many commerce students struggle to do.
“We need to grasp the complexity of modern business… We’ve got to find way to prepare managers to deal with the unexpected. If you develop their thinking in these areas you’re giving people the basic tools because leadership doesn’t come out of text book.
“My concern is the relevance of our syllabus to 2011, 2012 and beyond.”
Peter Withers is director of academic programmes at the University of Auckland Business School’s Graduate School of Enterprise. He says his MBA programme is focusing on students’ second “experiential” or “applied” year which is in constant state of evolution.
“Two such second year courses – contemporary issues in management and organisational studies – are geared to allow us to react to what’s going on in the market place and the emerging trends.
“Under those titles in recent years we’ve taught things like complexity management and high-value decision making. This year we’ve shifted focus little bit and adjusted the order of some of the courses so under contemporary topics we’re teaching revamped version of innovation and entrepreneurship. And under the organisational studies we’re introducing new theme around executive coaching.
“The School’s new paper on coaching is the very last paper students take before they graduate. It aims to ensure that they’re prepared to go out into business as change agents.”
At Canterbury, Pete Cammock says the aim is to balance solid emphasis on business fundamentals with attention to the “softer” skills of managing and leading people. Emphasis is placed on recent research into sustainable practice and positive leadership.
“We also place great deal of emphasis on personal leadership with recent research on resilience and positive psychology being one important aspect. Our students complete large number of diagnostic instruments, and receive feedback and coaching from variety of developmental experiences including the T-group sessions that form part of the interpersonal skills for leaders’ elective course.
“We make extensive use of reflective journals to encourage student introspection and help students to form personal development plans that identify their core values, and the career contribution and ‘calling’ they want to pursue post-MBA.
“All of this works as kind of integrated development experience that we are constantly refining with view to developing leaders who can really make contribution.”
For many local MBA programme providers, the economic downturn has caused small, and short-term, upwards blip in enrolments as managers strove to future-proof their careers. Overall, however, motivations to attend business school appear independent of wider economic ups and downs.
Back in 2009, the Virginia, US-based Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) kicked off worldwide survey to check this out.
Over two years it gradually gleaned responses from 39,772 people across the globe. The results, released earlier this year, show that the reasons people are drawn to business school remain constant despite the cyclical nature of the economy.
Regardless of the economic signals, people sign up for business studies to develop new skills and abilities, gain access to better career opportunities, and find more interesting

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